Monday, October 31, 2011

The moderate man is contemptible


It will surprise many to learn that my headline is supplied by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was one of a group of composers, which included Gustav Holst, John Ireland and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who met in the late 1890s to discuss William Morris' brand of socialism, and Vaughan-Williams' proposition that 'the moderate man is contemptible' was the subject of one of their debates. Vaughan Williams was a leading figure in the English folk music revival and the pentatonic scale, which is the common foundation of folk music around the world, links the English rural tradition to African American spirituals. The presence of the Afro-English Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in Vaughan Williams' circle indicates that at the time racial prejudice was less virulent in Britain than in America, which is why that peerless exponent of the African-American spiritual Paul Robeson chose to live in England from 1928 to 1939 where he was able both to perform and pursue his radical politics.

Paul Robeson returned to America in 1939 and took on the role of political artist. His passport was revoked in 1950 because of what the US State Department called his "frequent criticism while abroad of the treatment of blacks in the US". He was under constant surveillance by both the FBI and the CIA, was condemned for his beliefs by prominent figures and was prevented from broadcasting and performing publicly. His passport was restored in 1958 but both his health and career had been terminally damaged and he died in 1976 unapologetic about his political stance.

Call Mr. Robeson , which premiered to considerable acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007, presents the life of Paul Robeson as a powerful piece of political music theatre. It is written and performed by Nigerian born and British domiciled Tayo Aluko accompanied by pianist Michael Conliffe. Tayo Aluko shares with Paul Robeson a commitment to political activism; his recent Norwich performance was presented by Norwich Stop the War Coalition and his programme note for it included a message of support for the Occupy London movement.

Paul Robeson's credo of "Through my singing and acting and speaking, I want to make freedom ring" has inspired a breathtaking act of faith by Tayo Aluo. He has booked the 599 seat Zankel Hall auditorium at Carnegie Hall on February 12th 2012 for a performance of Call Mr Robeson to celebrate his own 50th birthday. There are no corporate sponsors and Tayo is appealing online for financial support for the Carnegie Hall performance. On An Overgrown Path reaches a surprisingly wide readership and if any of them can help Tayo either through sponsorship or by encouraging New Yorkers to occupy Carnegie Hall on February 12th 2012 I will be eternally grateful. If you need any more persuading please watch the YouTube clip below.



* In 1950 pianist Ray Lev was similarly blacklisted for her political views while the transcript of Aaron Copland's 1953 Senate Permanent Subcommittee hearing chaired by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy makes compelling reading.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Is world music really bourgeoisation in disguise?

EJ Moeran remained suspicious of the 'bourgeoisation' of folk, impatient with 'those who set about the teaching of folk-songs in schools, or the organising of garden fêtes etc... Well-intentioned as these efforts may be, they evolve something quite apart from the art of those who have it in their very bones, handed down from father to son'.
Nowhere is bourgeoisation more in evidence than in gypsy music, which has evolved via folk, classical, jazz and world music into something quite apart from the art of those who have it in their bones. The recording featured in my header image is a notably bourgeoisation-free zone. Titled De Sant Jaume Son - The Sound of Saint Jacques - it features musicians from the gypsy enclave of Saint Jacques in Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast near France's border with Spain. The Saint Jacques neighbourhood in the centre of the city remains almost unchanged - compare the archive photo on the CD sleeve to the one below that I took in Perpignan a few months ago. From the first track there is no doubt these Gypsies have the music in their bones, they are well served by punchy sound captured in 1991 in the Music Conservatoire in Perpignan and the download is a snip at £4.99. Have we let bourgeoisation slip in disguised as fusion, multi-culturalism and world music? Perhaps authentic performances are not such a silly tradition after all.


* My header quote comes from Electric Eden by Rob Young. This important book has slipped under the classical music radar, possibly because at first glance it appears to focus on the niche of contemporary British folk music. But that categorisation is very misleading as it roves effortlessly and eruditely from Vaughan Williams and Finzi to Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band and onwards. The American edition of Electric Eden was published in May, let's hope it does for Bax and Ireland what The Rest is Noise did for Feldman and Cage.

* I will be in Paris on November 25th for the premiere of Titi Robin's Les Rives anti-bourgeoisation project.

De Sant Jaume Son was bought online, Electric Eden was borrowed from Norwich Library and my Paris trip is entirely self-funded. Header photo photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

$1 million music prizes are not a good idea

Olivier Bétoin was once asked who his heroes were. 'I don't have heroes,' he replied. 'I respect those who do good without any recognition'.
My header photo is from the early 1930s and shows the isolated farm of La Coûme in French Catalonia. Opened in 1933 as a vacation centre for young people, La Coûme went on under Quaker stewardship to become an important shelter for refugees from the Nazi regime. La Coûme continues today as a youth activity centre with a strong musical component and is managed by Olivier Bétoin, who is the son of one of the founders. There are many paths leading from this quintessentially thin place. One goes to the nearby holy mountain of the Catalans, Mount Canigou and on to the Cathar castle of Quéribus with its Gnostic connections, while another leads to Prades where Pablo Casals lived in exile. And talking of the balance between doing good and recognition, 86% of readers who voted in my recent poll said that $1 million dollar music prizes are not a good idea. So, forget about heroes.

Header quote is from Love and War in the Pyrenees by Rosemary Bailey. Photo credit Olivier Betoin/La Coume. 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.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Classical music must come clean on toxic patronage


Manipulation by the mainstream media reached new heights in yesterday's BBC News coverage of the latest radio audience trends. Here is what BBC News said about Radio 3's performance:
Classical station Radio 3 maintained a listenership of above two million in the new figures.
By contrast this is the Guardian's somewhat more accurate report:
Radio 3 suffers biggest BBC radio audience fall - It traditionally enjoys a surge in summer listening on the back of the Proms, the world's greatest classical music festival. But BBC Radio 3, which recently introduced changes to its schedule in a bid to broaden its appeal, lost more listeners than any other BBC national radio station in the three months to 18 September. Radio 3 had an average of 2.05 million weekly listeners across the quarter, down 5.6% on the previous three months and 4.3% year-on-year, according to official Rajar statistics published on Thursday.
It is generally accepted that impartiality is a thing of the past at the BBC, as evidenced by their flagship current affairs programme Panorama recently being forced to apologise after footage used in an exposé of child labour in India was found to be "not authentic". But yesterday's example of using statistical sleight of hand to turn bad news into good news merits closer examination as it has widespread implications for classical music.


First, with apologies to UK readers, some brief background about the BBC. A Royal Charter is the constitutional basis for the BBC. It sets out the public purposes of the BBC, guarantees its independence, and outlines the duties of the Trust and the Executive Board. The Charter runs for ten years and the next renewal date is 31 December 2016. Funding for the BBC's domestic broadcasting services comes from the TV Licence which is payable by all UK households with a TV receiver. The Government sets the level of the licence fee and recently decided to freeze it at its 2010 level of £145.50 until the end of the current BBC Charter period in 2016. .

Which means that over the next five years two decisions will be taken which profoundly affect the future of the BBC. These decisions are in what form will the all important Charter be renewed, and secondly, how much will the BBC will have to spend. Those two decisions need to be viewed in the context of the BBC's current image problem. The case of the faked Panorama footage has already been cited. A BBC Radio 2 programme broadcast in October 2008 resulted in a fine of £150,000 when the UK independent broadcast regulator found it to be "gratuitously offensive, humiliating and demeaning". These examples of evidential unprofessionalism have been mixed with concerns about falling BBC quality standards and outrage at executive salaries and expenses. Which means the BBC find themselves in a difficult position when lobbying for the renewal of their Charter and a hike in their income.


Which is where arts and culture in general and classical music in particular come in. That blatant misrepresentation of the Radio 3 audience trend was not a simple case of trying to bury some bad news by statistical obfuscation. Look at the lead section of the story again in my header image - Radio 4's audience loss was not airbrushed out, so why was Radio 3's?

Lobbying has already started for the 2016 Charter renewal and license fee. Central to the beleagured BBC's demand for a generous settlement is their arts and culture patronage. Lavish presentations are being drafted showcasing BBC Radio 3's achievements, including building its audience, increasing accessibility and stewardship of that jewel in the cultural crown, the BBC Proms. Which is why the Proms were ring-fenced in the recent BBC cuts and why the Ulster Orchestra, which is far away from the London-centric lobbying process, had its broadcast output cut.

Many have responded with disbelief over what has happened recently at Radio 3. But when network controller Roger Wright's "innovations" are viewed through the prism of the Charter and license fee negotiation process, things become much clearer. Yes, guaranteed budgets of more than £3 billion for the whole BBC and £50 million for Radio 3 allows peerless, and sometimes not so peerless, programmes to be created. I once worked for the BBC and have written here of how the Proms changed my life. But we also need to acknowledge that short term self-interest is a major factor in the BBC's support of classical music.


Toxic sponsorship from financial institutions including UBS was the subject of my recent post about the Lucerne Summer Festival. The BBC's support of classical music needs to be recognised for what it is, another form of toxic patronage, which I will define as sponsorship that furthers a hidden and ethically questionable agenda. Just yesterday I wrote in praise of the spiritually themed White Light Festival at the Lincoln Centre in New York which offers "authentic encounters with one’s interior self" However, I failed to mention that the White Light Festival's principal sponsor is Time Warner, whose businesses include TW Cable, which markets eight adult pornography channels.

So what to do? Classical music's serious money habit coupled with the worsening global economy means toxic sponsorship may be the only way to survive. But classical music must come clean about its acceptance of this form of patronage. If audiences understood where the money was coming from the sponsor's benevolence might be viewed in a different light. How about for starters a voluntary scheme where arts organisations prominently list the name and ethical track record of their sponsors? That way classical music would get the money and, unlike yesterday's BBC News story, the audience would get the truth.


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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Classical music's enlightened new concert series


My thanks go to Alex Ross for making the connection between my recent post on marketing the spiritual aspect of classical music and the White Light Festival which runs at the Lincoln Center in New York from October 20 to November 19. Here is the positioning statement from the White Light Festival website:
In our technology-driven and distracted world, authentic encounters with one’s interior self and its inherent potential are increasingly infrequent. Throughout human history remarkable works of music and art have helped show us the extraordinary dimensions of human experience and life that lie within all of us—if only we pause in our rush to the finish line and turn our gaze inward. The White Light Festival hopes to provide moments to pause and explore the spaciousness and breath within.
If someone was silly enough to let me direct an arts festival the result would bear a striking resemblance to the White Light Festival. In the mix is Britten's War Requiem and the finale at the Lincoln Center follows the well-trodden path of the whirling Mevlevi Sufis together with Sarband performing their Arabian Passion According to J.S. Bach. One swallow does not make a spring; but it is good to see some influential people in classical music championing enlightenment instead of entertainment.

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BBC shows the world how not to do classical radio


Whichever way you look at it the news is bad. Independent data released today shows that classical network BBC Radio 3 lost 4.3% of its audience year on year and 5.6% of its audience from Q2 to Q3 2011. Average hours per listener have dropped during the course of the year from 6.1 to 5.8 and the station's audience loss is the biggest for any BBC national radio station. None of which will be a surprise to Overgrown Path readers. But it will be a surprise to BBC News readers who are disingenuously told no more than "Classical station Radio 3 maintained a listenership of above two million in the new figures". It should also be noted that the dramatic audience loss occurred in the quarter covering the Proms, which as seen above, were spun by the BBC press office as "Record breaking". One again, whose hand is on the BBC Radio 3 balance control?

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Koan for the day


Can any reader solve the following koan? Why in a culture that values accessibility above all else is Lou Harrison's genuinely accessible Piano Concerto almost inaccessible both on CD and in the concert hall?

* Photo shows Lou Harrison with his adored gamelan. More on the composer, his Buddhist faith and his Piano Concerto, which incidentally was composed for Keith Jarrett, here.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Classical music's $11 billion market opportunity


Rock music in the 1960s was celebrated for its wackiness, but the single that charted in the UK in September 1969 out-wacked them all. Recorded in EMI's famed Abbey Road Studios by members of the Radha Krsna Temple, produced by George Harrison (see photo below) and released on the Beatle's Apple Records, Hare Krishna Mantra reached number twelve in the charts and made two appearances on the BBC TV's iconic Top of the Pops programme. In early 1970 a second single from the Radha Krsna Temple charted and in May 1971 the LP seen above was released on the Apple label.

The Radha Krishna Temple is the London headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. For many the Krisna Consciousness movement means sandals, saffron-dyed sheets, tambourines and the Hare Krishna Mantra in Oxford Street. But the Krishna Consciousness movement, although only dating from 1966, uses the 5000 year old Bhagavad Gītā as a primary source to offer a refreshingly comprehensible monotheistic alternative to the notoriously opaque polytheism of orthodox Hinduism. The Hare Krishna earworm that started breeding in 1969 is in fact is a sixteen-word Hindu mantra that was adopted by the Bhakti movement in the 15th century and today Bhakti yoga is a cornerstone of the Krishna Consciousness movement. At which point we leave the Radha Krsna Temple in London and follow the path to the IRCAM centre for science and music in Paris.


In 1980 Pierre Boulez invited Jonathan Harvey to work at the IRCAM centre in Paris. One of the first products of this collaboration was Harvey's 1982 Bhakti which was commissioned by IRCAM and builds on the lineage of Messiaen and Stockhausen. Although scored for chamber orchestra and quadraphonic tape without voices, eleven of the twelve movements have quotations from the Sanskrit Rig Veda hymns appended in the score. Unlike Harvey's later works such as his String Quartet No. 4 there is no real-time electronic sound transformation in Bhakti. However the pre-recorded tape is created using computers to transform the sound of the instrumental ensemble. This blends with the live instruments to create a sound world that Jonathan Harvey describes as "reaching beyond the instrumental scale to a more universal dimension" which evokes the transcedent consciousness of the Rig Veda hymns.

Spiritual consciousness is the link between the Hare Krishna Mantra and Bhakti. George Harrison's Radha Krsna Temple production was a surprise chart hit and Jonathan Harvey is one of a group of composers, which also includes Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener and Philip Glass, who, despite differing styles, share a fascination with the spiritual that resonates with contemporary audiences. That great innovator John Cage was influenced by the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai whose definition of the purpose of music is so often forgotten in the current stampede to find new audiences:
The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.
The spiritual dimension is also found in many of the masterpieces of classical music, from Bach's B minor Mass to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. At which point mammon rears its ugly head, because we must conclude that there is a link between spirituality and the box office. Yet, despite this self-evident link, classical music's marketeers insist that entertainment and not enlightenment is the way to reach new audiences. Which is puzzling because there are powerful commercial arguments for tapping into the enlightenment market. For example, the mind, body and spirit market in America, which includes CDs, books, seminars and yoga courses, is worth $10.63 billion. By comparison the value of the US market for classical albums has declined to less than $200 million. Which means the American mind, body and spirit market is fifty times larger than that for recorded classical music.

It is not just the numbers that are attractive. There are already important overlaps between the two markets in areas such as music therapy and epigenetics, while Sufi and gnawa music are rooted in healing rituals. Katharine Le Mée's excellent little book on the origins, practice and healing power of Gregorian chant was featured here recently. This book was inspired by the album of Gregorian chant by the monks of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain that reached number 3 in the Bilboard rock chart in 1994 and went on to sell five million copies worldwide.


It is clear that the currently fashionable strategy of using a mix of celebrity and new media to promote classical music as an entertainment medium is failing to attract new audiences, and PR stunts such as yesterday's How Nintendo fans could save classical music story smack of desperation. Some will doubtless conclude that leveraging the mind, body and spirit market is as wacky as the Hare Krishna Mantra. But tantric massages in the Albert Hall to the soundtrack of Siegfried's Dawn and Rhine Journey are not part of the plan. Rather, it is proposed that classical music stops trying to reposition itself in the already overcrowded entertainment sector and starts, with some cues from the flourishing well-being industry, selling itself as the kind of unique life enriching experience that none other than Tom Service was exposed to recently:
Something weird happened last week at the Royal Festival Hall. At the end of Claudio Abbado's performance of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, what I experienced – along with thousands of others in the hall, and thousands more listening on Radio 3 – felt like a vision of infinity, a collapsing of time and space into a single point of brilliance and intensity.
There are not too many $11 billion market opportunities around, so perhaps it is time for classical music to stop talking entertainment and start talking enlightenment. Can Saint Gregory, Bach, Mahler, George Harrison, Jonathan Harvey and Tom Service all be wrong?


* The Radha Krsna Temple album was remastered as a CD in 2010 and released with two bonus tracks and additional documentation. Well worth seeking out, George Harrison's production is superb and the CD delivers a surprisingly powerful musical and spiritual punch. The recording of Jonathan Harvey's Bhakti made by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne conducted by Lorraine Vaillancourt at the time of the work's 1992 premiere is now deleted but copies can be found. An alternative recording on the NMC label is available as a CD and download. Jonathan Harvey's Vers, which was written for Pierre Boulez's seventy-fifth birthday, quotes from Bhakti and is one of the works on an excellent new album of Harvey's chamber music titled Run Before Lightning recorded by the Dynamis Ensemble and Javier Torres Maldonado. My interview with Jonathan Harvey can be heard here.

* Today (Oct 26) is Dwali, the Hindu festival of lights.


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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In search of the lost journalism


Alex Ross' collection of New Yorker writing Listen to This, recently published in paperback, is a salutary reminder of the depths to which music journalism has sunk elsewhere in the mainstream media. But where to find an alternative to the standard diet of reheated press releases other than in The New Yorker? Well, Amazon customer reviews may seem an unlikely source, but most professional music journalists could learn a thing or two from this contribution from Paul Magnussen:
This album forms one of a pair on the Nimbus label (the other being Cante Flamenco). Among Nimbus's laudable qualities at this time were first-class recordings, first-class (though not necessarily famous) artists, and careful attention to acoustics.

Especially notable, however, was an almost obsessive preoccupation with performances that were whole and 'live' -- not sewn together, Frankenstein fashion, from the usable parts of corpses. In accordance with this objective, the present album presents Gypsy artists, not in the recording studio, but in a small private club in Morón de la Frontera -- with no chance of retakes! Here Nimbus were really taking to the air without a parachute, because the difficulties of producing a first-class performance to order are legendary. Artists unused to being recorded may get self-conscious and seize up; others may be jealous of each other, or too tired, or too drunk, or not drunk enough...
Classical music is desperate to reach new and young audiences, yet the vital role of the music journalist as animateur is completely overlooked. The current generation of "another day another press release" music journalists would do well to reflect on Hesketh Pearson's tribute to a great music writer of the past, George Bernard Shaw.
The qualities in him that specially appealed to youth were his irreverence for tradition and office, his indifference to vested interests and inflated reputations, his contempt for current morality, his championship of unpopular causes and persecuted people, his vitality and humour, and above all his inability to take solemn people seriously.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

We're just not ready yet for a black conductor

It is October 19 and I have just now seen your July 25 post re Everett Lee. I represented Everett for a couple of years while I was in the artist management business in New York and I ran into the same attitude as Arthur Judson's when I presented him for open music director positions with major symphony orchestras (including Oakland!!): "We're just not ready yet for a black conductor." Ironic because one of the catchwords of African American life, from the white perspective, was "You people just aren't ready yet..."

Anyway, I did manage to get Everett a couple of opera conducting gigs, and 2-3 guest engagements with major orchestras, but then I moved away from NYC and away from the artist management business. I believe he later went on to run an opera company in Philadelphia and perhaps also formed or at least led another orchestra in New York (possibly that is the St. Luke's Orchestra you refer to). Before I met Everett, I had actually met the late Sylvia Olden Lee first because she was my wife's vocal coach at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and thereafter. (She was a pianist and vocal coach, BTW, not a singer.) I got to know their son Everett III and their daughter Eve as well. Quite an extraordinary family.

The common thread in the saga of Everett and Sylvia Olden Lee is Max Rudolf, who had (a) previously conducted in Goteborg Sweden, (b) was first a conductor and then artistic administrator at the Met from 1942-58 and (c) became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1958 and was probably responsible for getting Sylvia her position at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. (When he left the Cincinnati in 1970 to head the opera department at Curtis, he took Sylvia with him.) I was assistant manager of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1965-66 and stayed in touch with Rudolf thereafter. He was very supportive of my and my wife's career undertakings as well. Rudolf was one of the few arts administrators in the USA who dared to advocate for and engage black performers, composers and conductors.

I was unaware for many years that the Louisville Orchestra had provided Everett with his first guest conducting engagement (shameful since Louisville is my home town and I grew up on young people's concerts by the Louisville Orchestra). I do know that Rudolf brought Everett in to conduct the Cincinnati Orchestra on at least 2 occasions, as he had previously done with Dean Dixon.

In answer to your question re: the photo ID from Jet Magazine [see above] - Jessye Norman, Max Roach (who I also once represented) and Martina Arroyo - I believe that is indeed Everett Lee second from left. I had never before seen him with glasses but the facial structure looks the same. Quite a spiffy getup, too.

Ironically, my wife Sylvia and I now live in El Cerrito CA, just north of Oakland, whose Symphony for many years has had a black music director named Michael Morgan, and prior to that had engaged the late Calvin Simmons as its music director. Also, I believe the first black music director of a major US orchestra was James de Priest in Portland, and Thomas Wilkins is now in Omaha as well as principal conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. By all means please update Everett's biographical information and submit it to Wikipedia as well.

Michael O'Daniel
That valuable addition to the Everett Lee path arrived a few days ago. Thankfully attitudes have changed since the days when Everett Lee, Philippa Schuyler, Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon and other musicians of colour were struggling to build their careers. But echoes of that headline do still linger on.

* October is Black History Month in the UK.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Liszt de-arranges Beethoven


The Liszt bicentennial is well served elsewhere. But a brief heads up for a body of work that happens to be my favourite Liszt and which has been strangely neglected in the birthday junketing. The complete edition of Liszt's transcriptions of Beethoven's Symphonies dates from 1865 and is dedicated to Hans von Bülow. Transcription is technially the wrong term as Liszt summarises and embellishes Beethoven with the aim of recreating for piano the spirit and not the notes of the symphonies. Writing of his transcriptions Liszt said "they ought more properly be called dérangements" - which takes us down an interesting semantic path. Most readers will have made the literal jump, as I did, from dérangement to 'de-arrange', making Liszt a very early deconstructionist. But, quite deliciously, my Oxford French/English dictionary offers the following translations of dérangement - 'bother, disorder, upset'.

Fortunately you can decide for yourself whether Liszt transcribed, de-arranged or upset Beethoven as there is a first rate recording by Cyprien Katsaris, seen above, of the arrangements which is available as a budget priced Teldec 6 CD set and download. There is a further twist in this semantic path as Katsaris himself de-arranges/upsets Liszt's transcription/de-arrangement/upset of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony with some textual enhancements. Katsaris is a persuasive advocate of Liszt's arrangements which, for me, reach their peak in the sparse beauty of the adagio third movement of the Ninth Symphony. It is difficult to know why Cyprien Katsaris' fresh look at some of the greatest music in the classical canon is not better known, although the 'smooth classics' artwork seen below does not help, which is why I led with an artist shot. Now read about Marino Formenti's dérangement of Kurtág.


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Saturday, October 22, 2011

A social networking game too far


'Always about the new' Aldeburgh is hosting its second TEDx (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference on November 4th. I attended last year's conference but will be passing on this year's event. The über cool TED movement positions itself as a thinking person's Twitter and if talking heads peddling 18 minute solutions to problems that defy 18 minute solutions is your thing here is the conference link. Thomas Dolby, seen above, is chairing the TEDx conference and is also performing a gig the night before promoting his new album which, according to the puff, "is accompanied by a web-based social networking game" - another prospect that I find eminently resistible. At least the Aldeburgh Music TEDx website raises a laugh with its promise of "performances and discussions from groundbreaking guests." More on new music's sandbox here.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Ascending the Heaven Ladder


At 9.15 am on Friday, October 21, 1966 a waste tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. 144 people died in the disaster: 116 of them were school children. Ascending the Heaven Ladder is the first movement of Terry Riley's Requiem for Adam, which was inspired by the tragic death of a young person. In 2005 I wrote an early Overgrown Path post which coupled the Aberfan disaster with Terry Riley's Requiem. Today I offer a link to that post in memory of those who died in Aberfan forty-five years ago.

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Are $1 million music prizes a good thing?


My nuanced sarcasm about the award of the $1 million dollar Birgit Nilsson prize "for outstanding achievement" to Plácido Domingo in 2009 and Riccardo Muti in 2011 prompted the following comment from Andrew Patner:
'The "they" here is Miss Nilsson who wanted, with her own money, to create a prize for mature opera and concert artists and institutions. She chose Domingo herself to be the first winner, to be named in 2009 after her death. A jury, following her criteria, selected Muti as the second recipient. Her foundation also supports young artists, several of whom performed at the gala dinner following the award of the prize in Stockholm last week. There is plenty of information (as well as video and audio material, recent and archival) at the foundation's website: http://www.birgitnilssonprize.org/ '
Unlike Andrew I did not have the benefit of a trip from Chicago, where Muti is the orchestra's music director, to Stockholm to file an exclusive report on the prize giving for the Chicago Sun Times and his explanation that the foundation also supports young artists is therefore appreciated. But my remark was prompted by the following comment from John Mclaughlin Williams, who is closer to the coal face than most:
'When one thinks about the good that money could have done if awarded elsewhere besides another millionaire conductor...'
I also hold the view that not only does awarding very large amounts of money to established artists bring little benefit to classical music as a whole, but it also reinforces the widespread misconception that classical music is rich and elitist - see the typical media coverage above. Domingo and Muti may well use some, or all, the money to benefit others. But, if this is the case, would not the Birgit Nilsson Prize be far more beneficial if it was $1 million to be awarded by the winner to not yet established musicians of their choice?

However, I am always happy to be proved wrong. Please add your views as comments, and to give the less well rewarded 99% a voice there will be a voting widget on the question 'Are $1 million music prizes a good thing?' alongside this article until 28th October.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Riccardo Muti's cover story


News that Riccardo Muti has been awarded the $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize prompted me to dig this path out of the archive.

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Hi-fi good enough for Herbert von Karajan


That header graphic shows Herbert von Karajan endorsing Acoustic Research AR-3A loudspeakers. Edward M. Villchur, founder of Acoustic Research, has died aged 94. Read more in When the sound really mattered.

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Is the next step to occupy classical music?


Tuesday's post Classical music needs to confront its money habit attracted a record number of readers due to being picked up by Musical America and others. That spike in the graph of Overgrown Path readership underlines two points. First, there is a real demand for music journalism that values criticism above cronyism. And secondly, there is widespread concern about the distorting effect of the greedy 1% on classical music's increasingly fragile business model. Hopefully the debate has now started. But remember, while classical music debates nothing changes.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Portrait of the blogger as a young man


Alex Ross has a piece on The New Yorker website titled Worst College Essays 1989 in which he exhumes one of his early and less memorable literary efforts and invites other bloggers to contribute similar justly neglected masterpieces from the "dustiest corners of their hard drives". Never one to resist a challenge I dug out the literary sin of youth seen above which appeared in the October 1974 edition of Hi-Fi News and Record Review. Fortunately it dates from the time when a hard drive was the journey from London to Aldeburgh, which means there is no text file and readers are therefore spared an extract. But the heading 'Quad-wrangle in perspectice - a discourse on the importance of directionality in live and recorded music' says it all. In his exquisitely turned piece Alex recounts how "Later, we rediscovered the virtue of a simple sentence". As my readers will know, I am still searching.

* Eagle-eyed Wagnerians will recognise the photo. It is the Schalldeckel in the Bayreuth Festpielhaus. This acoustic shield blends the orchestral sound and hides the musicians from view, creating Wagner's 'invisible orchestra'. And talking of Wagner and eagles...

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Classical music must confront its money habit

'Bravo - It's a form of culture-washing. Oil companies on the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S. pioneered the whole idea of "we're sponsoring high culture for free for you, we can't be bad." Well, yes, they can.'
Yesterday's post, which pointed out that four of the main sponsors of the Lucerne Summer Festival have been linked to financial malfeasance, prompted that pertinent comment from SFMike.

Last week's London concert by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra drew a three line whip from the liberal leaning elements of big media, yet there was not a single mention of the funding behind the orchestra. Yes, the music making was sublime. And no, boycotts and demonstrations are not on the agenda. But classical music has its very own greedy 1% and keeping them in the style to which they have become accustomed by replacing dwindling public funding with toxic sponsorship is not the solution.

Classical music must confront its serious money habit. This comes in the form of peccadilloes such as the private jet and Sardinian retreat of Lucerne supremo Claudio Abbado and the Lamborghini of Bamberg maestro Jonathan Nott. Then there are the jaw dropping musicians fees negotiated by lavishly remunerated agents who in turn are supported by legions of middle feeders.

Right now a lot of people are demonstrating around the world because they are angry about inequality. If classical music is serious about reaching new audiences it needs to put its house in order. And talking of music festivals and toxic sponsorship...

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Music matters, but so does transparency


BBC and Guardian journalist Tom Service is a very persuasive champion of classical music in Lucerne. Last week he was waxing lyrically on BBC Radio 3 about the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, in September he enthused about the Lucerne Summer Festival in a Guardian feature, in 2008 he sang the praises of the Lucerne Festival Academy on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters programme after a visit to Switzerland, while in 2007 he snagged an interview for the Guardian with Lucerne Festival Orchestra founder Claudio Abbado on board the maestro's private jet.

With all that proselytising it is hardly surprising that Tom has not found time to mention the sponsors of the Lucerne Summer Festival, so I will fill in the blanks. The Festival has three resident sponsors. One is Credit Suisse, a multi-national providing private banking and corporate financial services which is currently the subject of a tax evasion enquiry in the US. Another sponsor is Zurich Insurance Company Ltd, which was fined £2.27m by the UK Financial Services Authority last year for losing personal details of 46,000 customers, while the third resident sponsor is Nestlé S.A, another corporation with a chequered history.

On the rung below the resident sponsors of the Lucerne Summer Festival are the main sponsors. These include investment bank UBS AG, which was bailed out by the Swiss government in 2008, is currently in the news because of a fraud scandal, and has been described by none other than the Guardian as "the big bank that cannot stay out of trouble". Another major sponsor is Swiss private bank Clariden Leu AG which was formed by a merger with a Credit Suisse subsidiary after its predecessor Bank Leu was involved in two major insider trading scandals. None of which is a secret and, it may be argued, someone has to pay the piper.

Now cut to the Guardian website and the campaigning piece from February 2009 seen in my header image. Under the bold headline Banks should not be sponsoring classical music it names and shames the Edinburgh and Aldeburgh Festivals for having banking connections, but somehow the financially well-connected Lucerne Summer Festival slips through the Guardian's net. However the concluding paragraph leaves one in no doubt as to where the author stands on the question of whether financial institutions should be sponsoring classical music:
'How can the art made at festivals sponsored by these bankrupt individuals and companies do the job that classical music should do, and have a necessary, critical voice in contemporary culture, if it continues to be supported by the dead hand of big banking? There may be many things wrong with the network of arts councils in this country, but the arm's-length principle at least ensures some form of independence from government and vested interests. Right now, I would happily advocate the replacement of large-scale private – or at least City-based - sponsorship with a model of bigger public, government support...'
Do I need to spell out the punchline? The author of the hellfire and brimstone sermon on the evils of banks sponsoring classical music festivals was, of course, Tom Service.

* It would be interesting to learn how Lucerne Festival Orchestra founder Claudio Abbado reconciles his left-leaning political views (machine translation here) with the track record of some of the Festival sponsors. Did someone mention the commercial-intermediary complex? More on money and music in Switzerland here.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Composing for dummies

'Say what you have to say as simply as possible and then leave before they have a chance to figure you out.'
That was Paul Simon's advice to a songwriting class he taught at New York University and the quote comes via David Browne's disappointingly earthbound chronicle of the music of 1970 Fire and Rain. Elsewhere Simon and Garfunkel are beyond cool.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

How faith and idealism triumphed over ratings


Radio 3's profile of Philippa Schuyler Colour of Genius can now be heard on the BBC iPlayer. As explained in an earlier post I had no involvement with the programme other than encouraging the BBC to develop it from the articles and recordings that I created with John McLaughlin Williams in August, which meant I heard the finished result for the first time last night. Doing justice to a personality as multi-layered as Philippa in a twenty minute interval talk is a massive challenge and everyone involved rises magnificently to the challenge. BBC Cardiff producers Michael Surcombe and Martin Williams deserve credit for steering a sensitive, in more ways than one, subject through the production process. Ella Spira's presentation is fresh and engaging, the participation of biographer Kathryn Talaly is a coup, while John McLaughlin William's pro bono home recordings bring Philippa to life - let us hope we hear more of John's music making on the BBC. Finally, kudos to Radio 3 for commissioning the programme and reminding us of the truth of these words from Libby Purves:
'To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is to make - and publicise - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile.'
* Listen to Colour of Genius via the BBC i Player here until October 21st. Confirmation of availability of the iPlayer stream outside the UK would be appreciated.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Young, gifted, female and finally trending


We live in a society that is fixated on success and for too long maverick musician Philippa Schuyler and cultural nomad Isabelle Eberhardt have shared the fate of being dismissed as eccentric and marginal figures who failed to live up to their early promise. Philippa Schuyler’s reputation as a composer and pianist has been conveniently buried in the wreckage of a military helicopter in Da Nang Bay while Isabelle Eberhardt’s literary ambitions have been scattered in a wadi in southern Algeria.

But attitudes are changing, and, quite appropriately, that change has been sparked not by the mainstream media, but by voices that are themselves often considered eccentric and marginal. In a remarkable example of cultural miscegenation a chance coupling between this blog and the BBC has spawned a Radio 3 profile of Philippa Schuyler which is being broadcast this evening. A few months later a multi-media chamber opera based on the life of Isabelle Eberhardt composed by Missy Mazzoli, whose credentials include working with the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird and the Bang-on-a-Can New Music Marathon, premieres at a leading New York performance space.

At first sight the lives of Philippa Schuyler and Isabelle Eberhardt have little in common, other than a passion for what a friend of the pianist described as "Sex - and not of the nicest kind". Philippa was a musical prodigy who was born in New York in 1931, her father was black and mother white. Their biracial daughter was acclaimed as a pianist and composer before the combination of rabidly conservative musical establishment and an overly ambitious mother sent her career into terminal decline. She died when a US military helicopter crashed in Vietnam in 1967 and the pomp of her funeral was crowned by flowers sent by US President Lyndon Johnson.


By contrast Isabelle Eberhardt was born in Geneva in 1877 to unmarried Russian parents. Music played little part in Isabelle’s life although she was known to play the piano in louche bars . Despite her family having no direct connections with Islam, she was convinced she had been born a Muslim and from an early age she was fascinated by North Africa; the photo above shows her dressed as an Arab girl when she was seven.

In 1897 Isabelle left Switzerland with her mother for the first of several extended residencies in North Africa, choosing to live in the Arab quarter of Algiers rather than the French enclave. Soon after arriving in Algeria the death of her mother, who had converted to Islam, deepened her commitment to her faith. This commitment was political as well as spiritual, and Isabelle's first stay in Algeria was prematurely terminated when she was forced to leave the country after taking part in a demonstration against Algeria’s colonial masters, the French.

Her independent spirit rejected social constraints and the political leanings of her father left her unimpressed by wealth and power. In 1899 she severed her links with Switzerland and moved to a traditional Turkish house in the old Arab quarter of Tunis where her immersion in the local culture extended to having her head shaved in the fashion of the local Muslims; the photo below shows her in Tunisian dress. She set off from Tunis on the first of her explorations of southern Algeria. Even today travel is difficult and perilous in these remote desert regions and more than a hundred years ago Isabelle only reached the oasis of El Oued after an eventful and often dangerous journey.


After returning to the north of Tunisia she travelled back to Europe to seek support for further explorations. She was writing newspaper articles to finance her travels, and in Paris discussed another journey to southern Algeria. This was to be part of an expedition sponsored by the monarchist and anti-semitic Paris newspaper Libre Parole. The paper, which played a prominent role in the Dreyfus affair, was hoping to form an anti-republican axis of monarchists and Muslims in North Africa. When these plans collapsed Isabelle returned alone to Algiers, where she started her addiction to smoking the mixture of cannabis and tobacco known as kif, before heading south to return to El Oued. During this journey she took as a lover a young Algerian army officer Slimene Ehni who was to become her husband first under the Muslim rite and eventually, after considerable difficulties, under French law.

In El Oued Isabelle was made an initiate of the Qadiri brotherhood, one of the oldest Sufi orders, an unprecedented honour for a European. Her involvement in esoteric mysticism reflected her view that modern (i.e. late 19th century) Islam was being diluted by Western influences. Isabelle was clearly in her element and she is seen on horseback in the photo below But her idyll in the oasis was cut short by an anonymous letter sent to the French military authorities maliciously accusing her of being a monarchist spy. This together with her connections with Libre Parole, resulted in her husband being posted to a garrison in northern Algeria in order to remove Isabelle from the politically sensitive south.


But before she could leave she was the victim of an assassination attempt by a member of a rival sect to the Quadiri who severed a bone and nerve in her left arm with a sabre. Isabelle interpreted the attack as predestination, believing it was part of a divine plan for her to become a maraboute or saintly mystic. Her would-be assassin was sentenced to hard labour for life; but this was reduced to ten years following a plea for clemency from Isabelle who was increasingly aligning herself with the colonised Arab and Berber population. However any satisfaction at this outcome was negated by an expulsion order which ordered her to leave the country for her own safety.

In January 1902 she returned to Algeria for the last time and her belief in a mystical vocation led her to the religious school, known as a zawiya, of a celebrated woman maraboute. Isabelle was by then estranged from her husband and in a surprising shift of allegiance participated in the early stages of France’s annexation of Morocco. After moving to Ain Sefra on the Algerian-Moroccan border she was enlisted as an agent by the French colonel leading the insurgency. As part of her intelligence activities she spent time at the zawiya of the Ziania Sufi order at Kenadsa in Morocco attempting to win the support of the influential sheikh of Kenadsa for French territorial ambitions.


The harsh conditions in the desert regions caused Isabelle’s health to deteriorate and she was hospitalised in Ain Sefra suffering from malaria and possibly syphilis; the deterioration in her condition can be seen clearly in the picture above taken in 1904 . She discharged herself from the military hospital and together with her husband, who she had been summoned from the north, moved to a dilapidated rented house in the Algerian quarter of the town. On 20th October 1904 a flash flood swept through the area and Isabelle was trapped in the collapsed house and drowned. Her husband escaped and the manuscript of the book on which she had been working was salvaged incomplete and damaged.

She was given a simple Muslim burial in Ain Sefra which her husband did not attend. The remnants of her manuscript were controversially edited and completed by her journalist friend Victor Barrucand and published under the incongruous title of Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam – ‘In the warm shadow of Islam’. Below is a photo taken a few days before she died.


Twenty-seven years separate the death of Isabelle Eberhardt in Algeria and the birth of Philippa Schuyler in New York. But despite this temporal and cultural gap there are remarkable similarities between the two women which start with their early lives. Both grew up under the influence of radical fathers: Philippa’s was an outspoken black journalist while Isabelle’s was a former Orthodox priest who renounced his faith in favour of anarchism as advocated by the notorious Mikhail Bakunin. Both women were precocious: Philippa had a 500 word reading and writing vocabulary before she was three and Isabelle was fluent in French and Russian, studied Latin, spoke Arabic, Italian and some English, and could read the Koran in Arabic when 16.

A shared fascination with Africa is another bond. Philippa, whose father was African American, felt a powerful affinity with the continent when she first visited it. From an early age, the Muslim-incarnated Isabelle felt a powerful attraction to North Africa, the Maghreb, which she considered to be “the sacred touchstone of Mecca”; below she is seen photographed in Arab-style dress in Switzerland when she was eight. Both women had little time for the established values of their country of birth. Philippa grew up challenging the institutional racism found in classical music in America while Isabelle rejected the cultural complacency of Switzerland. Both took a stand against discrimination, Philippa deplored the treatment of black GIs in Vietnam and Isabelle championed North African Muslims against the French.


But conversely, both women supported colonialism towards the end of their lives. Philippa, was an active member of the John Birch Society, wrote for a notoriously right-wing newspaper and defended American involvement in Vietnam, while Isabelle worked as a tax collector for the French administration in Tunisia, was also linked with a newspaper on the extreme right and participated in the destabilisation of the Moroccan Sultan. Both became involved in espionage: Isabelle was as an intelligence agent for the colonising French forces on the Moroccan border and was suspected by some as having an affair with the colonel heading the French push into Morocco, while Philippa was under surveillance by the CIA and had a close personal relationship with a senior US intelligence officer in Vietnam.

Travel is another link. Isabell’s prediction “I shall stay a nomad all my life” could have been echoed by Philippa as she restlessly roamed the world. Both women died far from their country of birth and both died tragically young: Isabelle was twenty-seven and Philippa just nine years older. Writing was another link: both women financed their travels by journalism and both were had a number of published books to their name. And, probably not coincidentally, both are well served by women biographers. Kathryn Talalay has given us a definitive life of Philippa while Annette Kobak’s Isabelle is the primary source for this article, although Paul Bowles introduction to his edited volume of Isabelle Eberhardt's writing The Oblivion Seekers has introduced many, including this scribbler, to her.

Central to understanding both women is their conflicted identities. The biracial Philippa changed her identity to the white Felipa Monterro Schuyler in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat prejudice. Isabelle’s identity conflict was equally as dramatic: from an early age she experimented with cross-dressing, she is seen below dressed as a sailor when she was seven. For most of her travels wore male Arab clothing and assumed identity of a man. Although her disguise was ostensibly to counter gender prejudice in the Muslim world, there was probably a deeper sexual motivation: as evidenced by her visit to a brothel disguised as a man during her last journey in southern Algeria.


Which brings this path to two powerful forces which shaped the lives of both Philippa Schuyler and Isabelle Eberhardt, sex and religion. Philippa’s predilection for “Sex – and not of the nicest kind” has already been noted and she had a number of brief sexual liaisons, one of which led to an abortion. In her biography Annette Kobak writes of Isabelle’s prodigious sexual appetite, particularly for North Africans, and how she was attracted to ports, to “their coarse virility… their… rough couplings” and of how “she could get the thrill of passing for ‘rough trade’”.

In view of their lack of sexual inhibitions it is surprising that both women were deeply religious and shared an involvement in mysticism. Philippa used the tarot to take important decisions, converted to Catholicism when she was twenty-seven and her commitment to her faith took her to more than one hundred and fifty Christian missions in Africa, including that of Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer. Isabelle’s religious vocation was very different: she believed she had been born a Muslim, had a premonition of a mystical calling, and was initiated into a Sufi order and visited several important zawiya.

There is one last chilling similarity between these young, gifted, and finally trending women - the element of mystery surrounding their deaths. The crash of the US military helicopter in which Philippa died in Vietnam has never been satisfactorily explained, while the escape of Isabelle’s estranged husband from the flash flood in which she perished has fuelled conspiracy theories. However, despite these mysteries, both were buried according to their faiths, Isabelle without pomp in a Muslim cemetery in southern Algeria, and Philippa in a Pontifical Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York.


* The portrait above is reputed to be of Isabelle Eberhardt. Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt with music by Missy Mazzoli, films by Stephen Taylor and directed by Gia Forakis opens at The Kitchen. 512 West 19th Street, New York on February 24th 2012, more details here. Isabelle: the Life of Isabelle Eberhardt by Annette Kobak (ISBN 0701127732), which was the source for the illustrations, is out of print but copies are available.

* BBC Radio 3's programme about Philippa Schuyler Colour of Genius is being broadcast at 8.25pm on October 14th. Associated resources include my profile of her Genius or Genetic Experiment? and John McLaughlin William's performance and analysis of her early piano music. Compositions in Black and White: the Life of Philippa Schuyler by Kathryn Talalay (ISBN 0195113934) is published by Oxford University Press.

* It is interesting to reflect that Isabelle Eberhardt experienced severe hardship and died in Algeria in 1904, just four years before Gustav Holst visited the country and made a similar journey south.

* This article is one in an occasional series on the theme of the Algerian autumn.


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