Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A stream of glorious music

'I think there is a great deal in The Kingdom that is more than a match for Gerontius, and I feel that it is a much more balanced work and throughout maintains a stream of glorious music whereas Gerontius has its ups and downs.'
That is from Sir Adrian Boult's introductory note to his 1969 recording of The Kingdom and after writing yesterday's post about mystical devotion I listened once again to Elgar's oratorio. Sir Adrian's high regard for The Kingdom is reflected in his interpretation - his recording is probably the finest achievement of the EMI dream team of Boult, Bishop and Parker, although their Pilgrim's Progress runs it a close second. Forget about Elgar the flag waving patriot, he was a Catholic and it was only twenty-eight years before he was born that Catholic emancipation became law in England. Instead follow these links to Elgar the mystic and Elgar the occultist.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

I thought I saw a Sufi cat

'As an Anchoress Julian was allowed to keep a cat for pest control, particularly to keep down the mice. Julian is often portrayed with her cat nearby, no doubt it was a great source of comfort to her.'
That notice is displayed in the Anchoress' cell in St Julian's Church in Norwich and I photographed the Marseille street cat seen below when I was on the road with a Sufi saint recently. On my iPod in Marseille was Aïcha Redouane singing her own settings of the Sufi poems of Rabi`a Al-`Adawiyya. Those two remarkable women, Julian of Norwich and Rabi`a Al-`Adawiyya, are linked by their fervour for mystical devotion. Julian and her cat are portrayed by Brother Robert Lentz OFM, a gay American Franciscan friar who controversially incorporates contemporary social themes into his icons. The link between Christian and Islamic mysticism fascinated another American monk Thomas Merton, who venerated both Julian of Norwich and the Algerian Sufi saint Shaykh Ahmad ibn 'Ajiba. The importance of mystical devotion was also recognised by the Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin who said "humankind is being brought to a moment where it will have to decide between suicide and adoration". Suicide has powerful advocates but those fighting the corner of adoration include Edmund Rubbra with a homage to Teilhard de Chardin in the form of his revelatory Eighth Symphony together with the feline linked Jonathan Harvey whose How could the soul not take flight sets the verse of Sufi poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi. Also on the side of adoration is Hildegard authority June Boyce-Tillman who captures Julian's mystical devotions in Enfolded in Love, a musical pageant for young musicians. With maritime tragedies in the news June Boyce-Tillman has a topical performance in Southampton on Feb 4: her new work for choir and orchestra The Myth of the Titanic retells the story of the sinking of the Titanic as a myth about human hubris and arrogance - classical music cannot be more relevant than that. The Myth of the Titanic, which in an echo of Tippett's A Child of Our Time uses a song from the black community in the US to protest against colonialism and racial subjugation, is confirmation that engagement is alive and well if you look beyond the Mahler symphonies. Isabelle Eberhardt, who campaigned against colonialism and was a frequent maritime traveller, had drawn me to Marseille and Missy Mazzoli's refreshingly engaged opera Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt premieres at The Kitchen, NYC on Feb 24. Funds are being raised for a recording of the opera on Kickstarter, which was how Ochion Jewell funded the CD of his First Suite for Jazz Quartet - is a new anti-business model emerging for recording? Alas no recording of June Boyce-Tillman's mystical musical celebration of Julian of Norwich, but read about it in Meetings with remarkable women.
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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The sacred mystery of the concert hall

Liturgy comes from a word meaning "public work"; by its performance more is expressed than can be conveyed in verbal formulae. Like music, liturgy holds more than can be explained in a commentary. The meaning is implicit and conveyed by performance. It is not a theatrical performance but more like the performance of a string quartet, not in its aesthetics, but in the thing behind the music.
Classical music's anti-silly conventions lobby has been getting quite a bit of airtime here recently, so I offer the thoughts above to add some balance. They come from Christopher Howse's book Sacred Mysteries and help explain why concert hall conventions have survived and also clarify the intentions, if not the actions, of traditionalist Catholics.

Illustration shows Julien's Orchestra at a Promenade Concert in Covent Garden. Louis Antoine Jullien (1812-1860) was born in Sisteron in France and after leaving France to escape his creditors established promenade concerts in London; which means that great British tradition the last night of the Proms is in fact of pure French descent. Jullien's first concerts were popular mixed programmes but later introduced symphonies, a trend which which contemporary Promenade Concerts have reversed. There is a topical link to audience interruptions at Promenade Concerts here, and more on music as ritual here.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Berglund's silence of Jarvenpaa

Nielsen's Fifth Symphony has been well served by the record industry. I grew to love it through a long-deleted 1975 LP. Producer David Mottley and engineer Stuart Eltham captured the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund in that wonderfully rich yet realistic sound that was the hallmark of EMI's recordings of the period. Simon Rattle said of Berglund "He is one of the great conductors still among us", an opinion I will happily concur with. I remember a blistering Shostakovich Seventh Symphony in the acoustically magnificent Caird Hall in a freezing Dundee in the 1980s, with Berglund conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Paavo Berglund's 80th birthday passed unnoticed on April 14, 2009. The reason is not difficult to find. The Finnish maestro has never been part of classical music's PR circus. One lasting memory of Berglund [seen above] is his Shostakovich in an arctic Dundee. Another is an appearance by him on BBC Radio 3's In Tune programme a couple of years back. Presenter Sean Rafferty was in the studio in London, Berglund was being interviewed over a line from Scotland where he was conducting. Sean Rafferty asked his usual fawning and vacuous questions. Berglund refused to answer in anything but monosyllables. As Berglund became more taciturn Rafferty became more voluble (if that is possible) until the interview ground to a halt. If it was available on CD it would be a best seller.
From The Uncertainty Principle - May 2009. Paavo Berglund died on Jan 25, 2012. Thanks for the music and for the wisdom Paavo.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Classical music is not a spectator sport


Cut to the Britten Studio at Snape on Saturday evening (Jan 21) where the 'Returns Only' sign was posted at the box office. So what sold out this remote venue in the middle of January - a pop-up concert by Gustavo Dudamel and his Simón Bolívar band perhaps? Well actually no, the event was an exploration of symmetry presented as part of Aldeburgh Music's Faster Than Sound experimental series. A major factor in the box office appeal was that Marcus du Sautoy was animating the event - author of several best selling books and a frequent TV presenter, his day jobs are Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and Fellow of New College.

Marcus du Sautoy was leading an exploration of symmetry in mathematics, design and music supported by a graphic designer, a multi-disciplinary artist and a multi-sensory artists collective. This Oxford professor of mathematics is also no slouch when it comes to music - he plays the trumpet and his unscripted deconstruction of the Goldberg Variations put many professional musicians to shame. His symmetrical soundtrack included Iannis Xenakis' Nomos Alpha and Olivier Messiaen's Quatre études de rythme Île de feu 2 in quadraphonic diffusions and a sequenced version of Bach's Goldberg Variations performed on MIDI Piano and Mac mini. All the photos were taken at Symmetry and the central figure in several of them is Marcus du Sautoy.


Symmetry sold out against the odds and Marcus du Sautoy kept his audience captivated for two hours. So someone, somewhere was doing something right. This was not a conventional live music performance and there is no suggestion that Symmetry can provide a template for the future of classical music. But it can provide some pointers to innovative ways of connecting with that elusive new audience, and where better to start than challenging conventions? Jonathan Harvey famously proposed that classical music should drop its silly conventions and Symmetry confirmed that we should be far more willing to experiment - and sometimes fail - with new concert formats.

Allowing the audience to move around during the performance was one of Jonathan Harvey's suggestions. Symmetry was not a live music performance, but I was impressed by how well the no seats Top Gear-style format (hate the programme but let's learn from it) worked in the Britten Studio - see accompanying photos. In the 1970s the seats in Philharmonic Hall in New York were replaced by red rugs and foam cushions, with Pierre Boulez explaining in a pre-echo of Jonathan Harvey "There is so much formality involved in the performance of music that we make it hard for audiences to get emotionally involved." More recently experiments such as Gabriel Prokofiev's classical club nights have dispensed with that formality - we need others to follow their lead.


Overturning established intermediaries was the second pointer from Symmetry. Even in these financially troubled times a not inconsiderable number of middle feeders - agents, impressarios, PR consultants, media companies etc - are making a very comfortable living from classical music. Any change threatens that comfortable living, which is why established intermediaries pay lip service to change while actually resisting it. Credits for Symmetry include graphic designer Richard Rhys, multidisciplinary artist Russell Haswell, visuals and electronics facilitator Farmersmanual, which describes itself as 'a pan-European, multi-sensory artists' collective that presents a stream of events from concerts to interdisciplinary cultural, aesthetic and political experiments', and co-producer Lumin, which creates 'sound led experiments across art forms'. Those are not names you find in the average concert programme - which is a pity.

The third pointer from Symmetry was the power of the visual. This is a familiar theme On An Overgrown Path and Saturday evening reinforced the point that a spoonful of images helps difficult music go down. Big screen organ recitals are popular with audiences, so why not big screen symphony concerts? And that could just be the starting point - at Snape Russell Haswell's oscilloscope images created by real time sound spectrum analysis gave a taster of the further possibilities.


Another pointer from the event was how a really good presenter never talks down to his audience. Marcus du Sautoy stretched his audience - which had one of the widest age ranges I have seen at Snape - and took them with him all the way to Xenakis' Nomos Alpha without once talking down. If you need any more convincing watch this video. In comments about the decline of classical radio a number of readers complained about how the current generation of radio presenters talks down to their audience. Marcus du Sautoy handed out work sheets for the audience to complete in the intermission with the explanation that "mathematics is not a spectator sport". We could well adopt "Classical music is not a spectator sport" as a new battle cry because many of the genres current problems are caused by futile attempts to repackage it as a passive entertainment rather than an active experience.

The key role of the animateur - the final pointer from Symmetry - is also a familiar theme here. Seeing Marcus du Sautoy in action brought home just how lamentable BBC Radio 3's current crop of imported Classic FM presenters really are. Marcus du Sautoy may not come cheap, but ex-Classic FM 'face of the BBC Proms' Katie Derham comes at a reported annual cost of £250,000 - and still the ratings go down. Symmetry was all about seeing things from a different perspective. So, in conclusion, here is a suggestion for an experiment that might just engage with a new audience. Send Katie Derham back to reading the news, recruit Marcus du Sautoy to present the Proms on BBC Radio and TV, and hire Farmersmanual, Lumin et al to give the Proms concerts a much needed makeover. I have a feeling the result would not be spectator sport.


* More on the Britten Studio in Playing in new music's sandbox.

Photos are by Jana Chiellino and come via Aldeburgh Music, whose indefatigable Marc Ernesti receives my thanks for finding me a complimentary ticket for the sold out event. All views expressed here are, of course, my own. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Degenerate music from the land of the iPhone


Degenerate Music or Entartete Musik was a label applied in the 1930s by the Nazis to music that was proscribed because it was deemed harmful or decadent. Degenerate Music from the 1930s is now a fashionable cause but Entartete Musik from our own times is ignored, presumably because the regime doing the proscribing makes iPhones, hosts the Olympic Games and buys an awful lot of Bentleys. That great travel writer Colin Thubron takes up the story in his indispensable To A Mountain in Tibet:
In a land maimed since 1950 by Chinese occupation, by mass killings and displacement, the Cultural Revolution, with its wholesale destruction of all things old, struck at Tibet's heart. Amid the executions and 'struggle' sessions, all public vestiges of Buddhism were erased, the Buddha denounced as reactionary, sacred images tossed into latrines, and scriptures converted into shoes for disgraced monks. By 1976, out of more than 6000 monasteries and temples, thirteen remained.
One of the any great monasteries destroyed in the Cultural Revolution was Tashi Lhunpo, which lost many of its precious scriptures, statues and images. Of the six thousand monks in the monastery, only two hundered and fifty were able to follow the Dalai Lama into exile, yet in 1972 under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was re-established at Bylakuppe in the south of India.

The Panchen Lama is the spiritual head of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1989 the 10th Panchen Lama died unexpectedly after delivering a groundbreaking anti-Chinese speech. The lineage then passed to Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the six-year-old boy identified by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama. But in May 1995 Gedun Choekyi Nyima disappeared and suspicions that he had been kidnapped were confirmed in May 1996 when the Chinese leadership admitted to holding him and his family in "protective custody."


Above is one of the few photos of the 11th Panchen Lama. At the time of his disappearance Gedun Choekyi Nyima was the youngest political prisoner in the world and despite repeated attempts, no international agency or human rights organisation has since been allowed to visit him or his family, and today their condition remains uncertain. As part of their policy of subjugating the Tibetan people the Chinese leadership nominated and selected their own 11th Panchen Lama in November 1995 who was quoted by the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua as saying:
"All the lamas of Zhaxi Lhunbo (Tashilhunpo) Lamasery, including myself, and the believers should love the Communist Party of China, love our socialist motherland and love the religion we believe in,"
Degenerate Music from the land of the iPhone comes in the form of Time of the Skeleton Lords - the latest in a series of CDs made on location at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in exile as a joint venture with the 30 IPS label. This new release traces the journey of the consciousness through Bardo, the intermediate period between death and rebirth. Recording and mixing were in the very capable hands of Mark Tucker whose other credits include the Spice Girls and Dario G. Not so long ago this kind of recording would be of interest only to ethnomusicologists. But the quality of today's solid state portable recorders and the involvement of a recording professional means the Tashi Lhunpo release tick the sonic as well as ethnomusicological box - the visceral sound of the dungchen (long horns) establishes a direct lineage to Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala. More on the Tashi Lhunpo sound in Wagner and the Tantric Orchestra.


* January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day here in the UK, an event dedicated to learning lessons from the past and using them to challenge hatred and persecution in the present. 'Entartete Musik from the land of the iPhone' is one of several articles that will remember acts of hatred and persecution that have also become victims of collective amnesia.

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Open the doors and let the sound stream out


To Alex Ross' growing list of Cage centenary events I would add Aldeburgh Festival's John Cage Musicircus curated by James Weeks and Exaudi on June 23. As the Aldeburgh Festival brochure explains - a plethora of Festival artists and others fling open the doors of the Hoffman Building and let the sound stream out. Centrepiece of the Musicircus is a repeat of Exaudi's performance of the John Cage Song Books. Their first performance at Snape of the Song Books provides my header image and an article here, while you can listen to James Weeks talking to me about Elisabeth Lutyens and more in an iTunes podcast here.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Classical music has a lot to protest about


We need more activist musicians so it was encouraging to see members of the London Philharmonic protesting about the excesses of the Israelis and to see New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert protesting about the excesses of a mobile phone user. With those protests out of the way hopefully the London Philharmonic musicians will turn their attention to the orchestra's corporate sponsor Japanese Tobacco International - the company is the world's third largest cigarette company - and Alan Gilbert will talk to the man in the front row from his orchestra's global sponsor Credit Suisse - the bank is currently under scrutiny in a US Department of Justice tax evasion investigation.

All of which is, of course, small beer compared with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But the infringement of human rights in China is very big beer indeed; so it is worth noting that the London Philharmonic returned a few days ago from a seven concert tour of China with pianist Hong Xu while tomorrow (Jan 24) the New York Philharmonic gives a Chinese New Year concert in Avery Fisher Hall under guest conductor Long Yu.

Although managed by New York based CAMI, Long Yu, who is seen above, has close links with the Chinese Poly Group. This state controlled business started as a military enterprise in the 1980s, the decade of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and went on to become one of China's largest manufacturers of weapons. Ostensibly Poly has now divested itself of its armaments businesses but a Canadian Intelligence Service report concludes that the company has not completely severed its links with the People's Liberation Army. Another part of the same group, Poly Culture & Arts, is the state authorised cultural broker whose interests range from tour and theatre management to CD manufacture. Poly Culture also controls the performance venues in most major Chinese cities, some of which will be familiar to touring Western orchestras including the New York Philharmonic.

Classical music represents culture and humanity and China's crimes against culture and humanity are well documented - among them the subjugation of Tibet. Since invading Tibet in 1949 China has systematically destroyed one of civilisation's oldest and most precious cultures and in an unprecendented crime against humanity an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese, many killed with weapons manufactured by the Poly Group. Yes, classical music has a lot to protest about.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The sound is just following its own nature

In our practice, we think that noises, cars, voices, sights are distractions that come and bother us when we want to be quiet. But who is bothering whom? Actually, we are the ones who go and bother them. The car, the sound, is just following its own nature. We bother things through some false idea that they are outside us and cling to the idea of remaining quiet, undisturbed.
That refeshingly lateral thought is relevant both to John Cage's view of music as "just an attention to the activity of sounds" and to a certain symphonic ringtone. It comes from Achaan Chah who was an important Buddhist teacher and founded two major monasteries in the Thai Forest Tradition. This Tradition is worth exploring for those who are attracted by the common sense approach of Buddhism but find Zen too austere and Tibetan Buddhism too arcane. To keep the playing field level Zen provides the graphic in the form of a photo I took recently in the Musée Guimet, Paris, while Tibetan Buddhism supplies the soundtrack in the form of Jonathan Harvey's Tranquil Abiding for chamber orchestra. This is one of the works on the CD of his music by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Sympony Orchestra titled Body Mandala - more on that contemporary classic here.


* Quotation is from A Still Forest Pool, the Insightful Meditation of Achaan Chah edited by Jack Kornfield and Paul Brieter. This thought-provoking little book can be read online here.

* Body Mandala is being performed as part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Jonathan Harvey festival at the Barbican on Jan 28, 29 and 30. The festival also includes the UK premiere of the composer's opera Wagner Dream.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Music from beyond the laminar flow region

Perhaps the brain has the equivalent of a laminar flow region (like water from a tap), where all the ordered information and processes are well catalogued and indexed. This is our acquired and inherited knowledge, conscious and sub conscious. Outside this region there is the equivalent of chaos, masses of unstructured data and half-formed thoughts: a swirling mass of unstructured and unintelligible information derived from the incalculable quantities of sensory input the brian receives every second: a region of wild turbulence and disorder. Chaos.

We are only vaguely aware of this chaotic region. Here lurk the demons of madness. Yet isn't genius on the edge of madness? What is actually happening at the boundary - at the edge of chaos? If the analogy of our example of the water flowing from the tap holds true, than at the edge of chaos there is an erratic stream of tiny whorls of disordered thought which comes spinning out of chaos to penetrate the lamina region.

Are these tiny whorls the seeds of creative thought? Does inspiration heighten our awareness of them, and allow us to crystalise the occasional one into a brilliant idea? For so much of our brief time on earth, we are content to exist in the secure and predicatable laminar world. However, when we face the demons at the edge of chaos we can sense the tiny whorls of creative thought as they come spinning out of the blue....
Those thoughts come from the adventurer and free-thinker John Ridgway. They appeared here previously in a very early post about Gesualdo and Nick Drake and I was reminded of them last night listening to a recording of Bohuslav Martinů's String Quartet No. 6. How true it is that for the majority of our brief time on earth we are content to exist in the comfort of the laminar flow region. It is our inbuilt craving for the secure and predictable that so much contemporary culture exploits while, by contrast, Martinů's Quartets build on those tiny whorls of creative thought that come spinning out of the blue at the edge of chaos.

Martinů's Symphonies are gaining acceptance but his Quartets are still neglected - presumably because their exploration of the outer reaches of tonality is alien to a digital age in which, as John Ridgway reminds us, all information must be neatly catalogued and indexed. I was listening to the commendable account by the Panocha Quartet account of the Sixth Quartet from their complete cycle of Martinů's Quartets on Supraphon; the artwork above exhibits remarkable synchronicity with the opening quote. Naxos has alternative recordings of the Quartets which I am not familiar with. More on music from beyond the laminar flow region here.

Header quote is from the out of print We Sailed Away by the Ridgway Family ISBN-13: 978-0316877091. 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.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Travel and accommodation will be paid by Israel

Top Music blogs - Free trip to Israel‏

I stumbled upon your blog while searching the web for top music blogs!

I am contacting you on behalf of an organization called Kinetis. Kinetis is a grassroots organization established to promote the recognition of Israel at home and abroad as a vibrant and inspirational source of creativity and innovation. By educating about and exposing the creative energy of the Israeli environment and people, we seek to enhance global appreciation for Israel's unique contribution, and to revitalize national pride.

The "Vibe Israel" project, which I manage, is an all-expenses paid 7-day tour of Israel we offer to online opinion makers and leaders who write about areas in which Israel has an offering of global relevance. We recently invited a group of Mommy Bloggers to show them the family life, parenting and children aspects of Israeli life, and the response was great (we hosted 3 leading bloggers from the UK and 2 from Spain) and Design bloggers to show them the design scene here.

We are now looking into creating a tour for music bloggers (no specific genres, a taste of different genres) and are doing some basic research to ascertain exposure and relevance of this subject online. Please find attached some more info and a sample itinerary.

If you are interested in coming, please advise the following..

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Adi Kaplan Senior Projects Manager
That email arrived yesterday. The last self-financed visit I made to Israel with my family was informative and enjoyable and hopefully over the years On An Overgrown Path has helped promote the creativity of Israel and the Jewish diaspora - the header photo shows senior Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim whose Kabbalat Shabbat was given a very rare broadcast by me in a Jewish Voices programme on Future Radio in 2010. There certainly is creative energy in Israel and abroad, but there is also most definitely considerable room for improvement. I wish Kinetis luck with its project but will not be taking part. This article may help explain why.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On the road with a Sufi saint

'A strong breath of life rose from Marseille and its ports, an insistent call towards distant horizons, like a subtle and irresistible magic spell. For the first time Orschanow realised that the universe did not end here on this quayside, that out there, beyond the soothing sea, were lands of sun and silence: Africa.'
Those are the words of Dmitri Orschanow, the central character in Isabelle Eberhardt's little known autobiographival novel Vagabond and my header photo shows the quayside and soothing sea at Marseille. Isabelle Eberhardt was a cultural explorer, Sufi adept and libertine. It is no coincidence that the narrator in her autobiographical novel is male because, as my October 2011 post recounted, from an early age Isabelle experimented with cross-dressing. For most of her extensive travels she wore male Arab clothing and assumed the identity of a man, a disguise that almost certainly went beyond the need for security in Muslim countries.


Like Isabelle, Orschanow stayed in Marseilles en route for North Africa and the quays of the Old Port form the backdrop for several of the scenes in Vagabond. Those quays are also the backdrop to the photo above which I took it in December last year. I had just finished re-reading Vagabond over steaks frites and local vin rouge in the Brasserie Le Quai; this is next door to the Hôtel Beauvau where Isabelle stayed before leaving Marseille for the Maghreb in 1899. Below is a backstreet in the Panier, or Old Town.


I had been in Paris with Titi Robin, in Le Barroux with the Benedictines, in Avignon with Les Pénitents Noirs, and then travelled south to be with Isabelle Eberhardt in Marseille. More than a hundred years ago the city was the gateway to the Maghreb. But for the population of the former French colonies of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, Marseille is the now the gateway to Europe. And for many that gateway is locked by EU visa requirements. Since 1998 more than 17,000 people fleeing from poverty and repression in North Africa have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean illegally, making the landlocked sea the biggest mass burial site in history. Some illegals survive the journey and finally arrive in Europe's most ethnically diverse city, Marseille.


Marseille is not a popular tourist destination despite being France's second biggest city and located in the sunny south. But it is well known as a centre of organised crime thanks in large part to the film The French Connection. Which means the tourists stay away and miss a resident cast of Senegalese, Berbers, Tuaregs, Sephardic Jews and migrants from Greece, Italy and Spain that could grace any movie. Above is a scene at Marseille Provence airport which has many flights to the Maghreb.


Like any big city Marseille can be scary and when I first visited in 1971 it was very scary indeed - back then my cheap hotel in the notorious area near the Gare Saint Charles was protected at night by a large guard and an even larger Alsatian dog sleeping across the entrance. But I have been back many times and despite walking the streets on my own at night, see photo above, I have been struck by nothing more than the sheer electricity of the place - below is some of the local street art.


We know the details of three different addresses in Marseille that Isabelle Eberhardt stayed in during her short life. In 1899 she booked in to the Hôtel Beauvau on the harbourfront before sailing for Tunis. Today the Hôtel is owned by a major hotel group and a room with a terrasse panoramique costs 639 € ($816) a night plus buffet breakfast at 21.00 € ($27), which is rather out of this blogger's price range. So I simply took the photo below as a reminder of what I missed.


A short distance away from the Hôtel Beauvau is 67 rue Grignan where Isabelle stayed with her Algerian husband Slimène when he arrived in France in 1901. The rue Grignan is now part of Marseille's commercial centre and has changed beyond recognition over the years, but well back from the waterfront there is a more tangible link with Isabelle Eberhardt.


In her invaluable biography Annette Kobak describes how Isabelle Eberhardt stayed several times in the house of her brother Augustin at 12 rue Merentie. This is at the top of the steep hill that the main street of the Old Town, the Canebière, climbs as it leads away from the harbour and, by chance, was close to the apartment I was staying in. Annette Kobak describes how Isabelle stood looking out of the barred sitting-room window on to the peeling plane trees lining the small residential street. That is 12 rue Merentie in my photo below, and it has changed little since Isabelle left in 1901 en route for North Africa, where she was to die three years later at the age of just twenty-seven.


Despite her family having no direct connections with Islam, Isabelle Eberhardt was convinced she had been born a Muslim. She was deeply interested in esoteric mysticism and in Algeria was made an initiate of the Qadiri brotherhood, one of the oldest Sufi orders; this was an unprecedented honour for a European yet alone a European woman. Isabelle Eberhardt was a pioneering feminist and the Eternal Feminine was a sub-text to my road trip to Marseille. Which meant that on my iPod was Aïcha Redouane singing her own settings titled Maqâm d'Amour (World of Love) of poems by the 8th century female Sufi saint Rabi`a Al-`Adawiyya .


Aïcha Redouane was born a Berber in the High Atlas region of Morocco and studied music in Egypt before settling in France. She formed the Al-Adwar Ensemble with her husband the Lebanese persussionist Habib Yammine and they accompany her on the disc. Rabi`a Al-`Adawiyya was the first proponent of the doctrine of Divine Love, a concept that transcends Islam and is at the heart of all monotheistic and polytheistic religions. I do not know if Isabelle Eberhardt was familiar with the verse of Rabi`a Al-`Adawiyya, but I somehow think the late 19th century action woman would have appreciated this poem by the Sufi saint.
I carry a torch in one hand
and a bucket of water in the other
with these things
I am going to set fire to Heaven
and put out the flames of Hell
so that voyagers to God
can rip the veils
and see the real goal

* 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.

* Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall's valedictory Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) is a celebration in music of the Mediterranean. The accompanying book contains two important essays, The Sea of Death - the Challenge of Immigration by Rossend Domènech and Revolt? Revolution? by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

* Marseille is the Euroean City of Culture in 2013.

* More on Algeria in Music and politics in the garden of Allah.

All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. 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). I travelled by train from Norwich to Marseille and returned on a Ryanair flight to Stansted. My journey and this article were entirely self-financed. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My own downward spiral of listening enjoyment...

Bob, your comments over the years about BBC Radio 3 have always resonated strongly with me and I don’t even live in the UK. They have great relevance to my own downward spiral of listening enjoyment of CBC Radio 2 (in Canada), and I share Scott’s sentiments (in the previous post on this subject). One used to be able to learn something from CBC Radio 2 programming; now it’s some bimbo who self-identifies as “the girl with the hair in the chair” and whose pithy commentary is pretty well limited to “ewwwwww, doesn’t that send chills up your spine?”. (To be fair, the IQ rises 20 points for two hours afterwards with another host, and on Saturday and Sunday.)

I am most grateful for your flogging this issue as I am sure there must be at least one producer at the CBC who reads your blog. Let the hills echo with the sounds of complaining. Radio 3 and Radio 2, in the UK and Canada respectively, have lost their way. Clearly people aren’t listening, in Britten’s sense and as reflected in audience numbers.

Best, Tom Hogan [Disclaimer: I have no association with the CBC or any broadcast entity.]

P.S. Before pressing SEND, I can't resist asking you what Norman thinks about all this.........?
Tom, many thanks for that email. There can only be two possible explanations for the resounding silence elsewhere on this topic. Either other commentators are in complete agreement with the direction that classical radio stations are taking. Or the commentators are not prepared to bite the hand that feeds them. From my own point of view it is wonderful being retired because your pension provider cannot fire you. All of which reminds us yet again of the insidious power of the classical radio stations.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Perhaps thinking really is the best way to travel


This photo is an outtake from the visit to Sainte-Nazaire in France that resulted in my 2010 post Musique Concrete. In the background is the famous Sainte-Nazaire bridge and on the left is a cruise ship being fitted out in one of the city's dockyards. I remember wondering at the time what would happen if one of these ships fell on its side. And let's not forget the many connections between classical music and cruise ships.

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Will citizen composers emulate citizen journalists?

But if you just look at the history of images then it becomes much easier. For 500 years the church had social control because it was the main supplier of images. You can point to Darwin, but social control moved with the control of images in the early 19th century to what we now call the media: newspapers, then Hollywood and television. There is now another revolution and the images are moving to individuals.
David Hockney talks to Nicholas Wroe in Saturday's Guardian. There are also some interesting thoughts in the article on the relationship between visual perception and hearing. These are prompted by Hockney's declining hearing and are relevant to the thread on these pages about seeing the music. It is illuminating to apply Hockney's theory of the control of images to music. As with images, music was initially controlled by the church. But since the early 20th century that control has been in the hands of the now beleagured intermediary layer of record companies and music publishers and other assorted middle feeders. But what will replace them? As David Hockney tells us, web enabled citizen journalists are rapidly replacing traditional news media. Will web enabled citizen composers replace music publishers, record companies and other traditional intermediaries? It may sound fanciful, but one case study suggests citizen composers are a real possibility. Back in 2005 Jeff Harrington wrote that "the internet, in my opinion represents probably the greatest positive change in how independent artists communicate with audiences." Jeff has successfully reinvented himself as an internet composer and described to me how his business model works in a Future Radio programme in December 2010. Listen to the streamed interview here and the linked post is here.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is Olivier Messiaen part of the Vichy myth?


The relationship betwen music and totalitarian regimes is a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path and the collaborationist Vichy regime in France has featured in a number of these paths. Until recently what had really happened in Vichy France during the Second World War was obscured by assiduously cultivated folklore. Central to this is the myth that the entire population of France was opposed to the Nazis and that everyone was an active member of the resistance. Only in recent years has the truth been uncovered about les années noires, a truth that includes the Vichy policy of deporting Jews to deathcamps without Nazi coercion.

After the Franco-German armistice in 1940 the 84 year old Marshal Pétain became Chief of State of Vichy France and presided over a regime that had a strong following in the Catholic Church. In August 1945 Pétain was found guilty of treason, and was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of his age and First World War record. He served his life sentence imprisoned on the Île d'Yeu off the Atlantic coast of France, dying there in 1951, aged 95. In 2008 my exploration of the Vichy path took me to the Île d'Yeu and the rather equivocal account I wrote then of Olivier Messiaen's connections with the Vichy regime has stayed in my mind. That is Messiaen in the photo above and my words about him are repeated below:
When France fell to the Germans in May 1940 captured French troops were sent to detention camps. Among them was the composer Olivier Messiaen, who was born on 10th December 1908 in Avignon. Messiaen was held first in a transit camp in France, then in Stalag VIII-A, near Dresden in Germany, where his Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time) was famously given its first performance in January 1941. But, later that year Messiaen, as a soldier of the defeated French army rather than a designated 'undesirable', was released. He returned to Nazi occupied Paris where he became profesor of harmony at the Conservatoire. Messiaen, who was a devout Catholic, actually worked for the cultural arm of the Vichy government for several months. He composed a patriotic cantata for schoolchildren on the theme of Joan of Arc, the score of which is lost. Messiaen's diaries make no mention of the liberation of Paris by Allied troops in August 1944, despite the fact that he was living in the city.
Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a masterpiece irrespective of its context. But there is no doubt that the Quartet's concentration camp context has helped its popularity. Which is why the context of other works composed by Messiaen in the period between his appointment as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire in autumn 1941 and the liberation of Paris by the Allies in August 1944 is also important. Among the works Messiaen composed in this period are Visions de l'Amen, Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine and Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus.

Even before Messiaen started teaching in Paris two Vichy anti-Jewish statutes had been enacted which impacted directly on the Conservatoire. (Vichy law applied in Paris and the occupied north while giving precedence to German law). Among other measures the Vichy statutes banned Jews from influential professions including teaching, the media, broadcasting and the arts, and limited Jews to comprising no more than two percent of other public service professions and three percent of students in higher education. The arrest and deportation of Jews by the French police was a regular occurence in the years 1942 and 1943. In Paris in one day alone, July 17 1942, a sweep by 4,500 French police arrested 12,884 foreign Jews, including women and children as young as three, and held them for several days in a stadium in the city before deportation.

In 1943 deportations spread to include French Jews and the Vichy government handed over the Jewish former prime minister Léon Blum to the Germans. On June 28 1944 there were massacres of Jews in a number of French cities following the assassination of the Vichy propoganda minister in Paris. In total 75,721 Jews were deported from France in the Second World War, the majority were sent to Auschwitz and less than 2,000 survived.

These were hardly events that would go unnoticed in the Conservatoire and elsewhere in Paris. Which raises the question, have the Messiaen biographies been influenced by the Vichy myth? Respected Messiaen biographer Nigel Simeone thinks not and supplies robust evidence that the composer was "distanced" and "disinterested" from politics. But until recently the Vichy myth told us that everyone in wartime France was distanced and disinterested from politics. Messiaen certainly mixed with collaborators and Nigel Simeone confirms that Messiaen's publisher René Dommange was a supporter of the Vichy regime, while other sources report Dommange as actively collaborating with the Nazis.

Was a degree of acquiescence inevitable in occupied France? (Pierre Boulez and others were also active in Paris during the German occuation). Did Messiaen have little choice but to keep his head down at the Conservatory and refine his fortuitous mix of spiritual orthodoxy and technical innovation? Does a composer's music exist in isolation from its context? Was Pablo Casals right when he said a musician's attitude to life is more important than music? Does any of this matter seventy years later? Important questions that are very difficult to answer and I have a feeling we have not reached the end of this path. Meanwhile, I am on the road with Messiaen here and in search of his birthplace here.


* Sources include Memory, the Holocaust and French Justice edited by Richard J. Golsan (ISBN 0874517419)

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Friday, January 13, 2012

The hills are alive with the sound of complaining


People protest when I complain about BBC Radio 3. So here is someone else doing it.

Marseille street scene is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. With thanks for heads up to Spectator reader David Derrick. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

How music appeared as a defence witness


Chance uncovers a unique example of music being used in the defence of a war criminal. Many visitors arrived On An Overgrown Path yesterday following the airing of Nazi Hunters - Paul Touvier on History Television in the States. Search engines had directed them to my January 2010 article which uncovered links between French war criminal Touvier and the singer Jacques Brel, who is seen above. By coincidence as History Television was bringing Touvier to the attention of many in the States a book on the same subject arrived here in Norfolk from Seattle.

It is a volume I had tracked down online following a recommendation from a reader who had read my recent article about the continuing activities of the Society of Saint Pius X, the traditionalist Catholic group that had harboured Touvier for sixteen years before his arrest in 1989. Memory, the Holocaust, and French Justice edited by Richard J. Golsan is a valuable academic study of the flawed prosecution by the French judiciary of Touvier and of Vichy police chief and friend of President Mitterand René Bousquet. The book confirms what I had already uncovered about links between Touvier and Brel and adds some fresh information.

My 2010 article explained how a song titled Voir appeared on an album compiled by Touvier and released on Philips in 1967 to benefit a Catholic charity. At his trial in 1994 Touvier was defended by Jacques Trémolet de Villers. As well being a lawyer Trémolet de Villers is president of the Catholic fundamentalist group La Cité Catholique and is a monarchist and far-right activist. Memory, the Holocaust, and French Justice recounts how at the trial Trémolet de Villers claimed that Brel had written Voir, with its lyrics "To see a ruffian and try to love him...See the eternal enemy and try to forget" as a tribute to Touvier. Fortunately the jury was not moved and Touvier was convicted of crimes against humanity for his part in the 1944 murder of seven Jews and a human rights activist. It also appears that in his attempt to love a war criminal Trémolet de Villers had tried to forget the facts. Radio France dates the composition of Voir at 1958, while Brel was closely associated with Touvier from 1968 to 1971.

* Video of Jacques Brel singing Voir here.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mobile phone rings in finale of housing crisis


Yesterday's news story that former French football star Eric Cantona was to be a candidate in the forthcoming French presidential election has a pertinent music connection. Cantona's candidature was in fact a clever publicity stunt to draw attention to what he describes as the "millions of families in France whose suffering is forgotten". In a newspaper interview the former Manchester United footballer reveals that he wants other presidential candidates to support the housing activist group Fondation Abbé Pierre which works on behalf of the 3.6 million people in France who are homeless or live in substandard accomodation, see the advertisement above. Fondation Abbé Pierre was founded by the moderate French Catholic priest L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) who is a French folk hero and founded the Emmaus movement in 1949 to help poor and homeless people and refugees. In 1986 acclaimed pianist and Messiaen authority Jean-Rodolphe Kars abandoned his concert career and ordained as a priest in the Emmaus community. Père Jean-Rodolphe continues to work with the poor and homeless today, but in 2005 returned to the recording studio to record an album of Jewish music for Les Éditions de l'Emmanuel. It is a tale worth reflecting on at a time when Twitter obsessed classical music sees the big issue as a mobile phone ringing in a Mahler symphony. The full story of Jean-Rodolphe Kars and his 2005 album is in my post Following in Olivier Messiaen's footsteps.

* Translation of Fondation Abbé Pierre advertisement - 'Manon scribbled on the walls. The rest is not her work. 600,000 children are victims of bad housing. Let's do something about it!'

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Richter's crouching ovation for Weissenberg

'Weissenberg (who says he's a fervent admirer of mine) has completed a colossal undertaking and one can only congratulate him on it. His work bears all the hallmarks of honesty, conscientiousness and the love that he feels for his work. If only his fingers didn't press ahead so much at the end of the fast variations, as this really spoils Bach's music. But I actually believe it does not come easily to him'.
Sviatoslav Richter writes in 1972 of the first recording of the Goldberg Variations by the sadly departed Alexis Weissenberg , who is seen above. The quote comes from Sviatoslav Richter - Notebooks and Conversations edited by Bruno Monsaingeon. The book also provides the information that Richter auditioned Weissenberg's Bach in his car while driving from Munich to Vienna, presumably listening to an audio cassette. Now I would trust Richter's ears anytime, but his evaluation does raise the question of what is the minimum audio quality level needed to make valid artistic judgements? A propos two true stories from my days at the sharp end of the record industry are relevant. While I was at EMI a senior classical executive on whose watch many great recordings were made complained repeatedly of distortion on white label (test) pressings of new releases. These were the days of vinyl LPs so a technician from Abbey Road was sent to the executive's house to check his audio system. When he arrived he found the tone arm of the record deck weighed down with a copious amount of plasticine "to prevent it jumping from the groove". At another time a prominent critic wrote unfavourably of the sound of EMI releases. Again a technician was despatched to check the reference audio system. In the critic's house one stereo speaker was in his study and one in the hallway "so I can listen while moving aroung the house". No flaky audio systems involved when Richter tells us in his Notebooks and Conversations that the Handel Keyboard Suites, which he and Andrei Gavrilov recorded for EMI, are "veritable miracles".

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The radio is alive with the sound of Jolivet's music


In 1936 La Jeune France group was formed by the composers seen in the photo above, clockwise from top left Olivier Messiaen, Yves Baudrier, Daniel-Lesur with André Jolivet seated at piano. Messiaen's reputation has endured while the other three languish in obscurity. Which is a pity as the music of André Jolivet in particular - he was the only European student of Edgard Varèse - deserves to be better know. So it is good to see a mini festival of Jolivet's music on BBC Radio 3.

Performances are in the very capable hands of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by contemporary music advocate Pascal Rophé. Centrepiece of the festival is today's broadcast which has Jolivet's Third Symphony framed by music from Messiaen and by Henri Dutilleux. Shame that the programmes are consigned to the weekday afternoon ghetto where they are fronted by Katie Derham whose credentials include presenting the Classic FM Hall of Fame. However the pain caused by Ms Derham's presence is eased by contributions from the composer's daughter Christine Jolivet-Erlih and musicologist and Jolivet authority Caroline Rae.

Those looking for more details of the Jolivet celebration on the home page of the BBC Radio 3 website will be disappointed as 'Discover Steve Reich' is judged to be a safer option. In the mini-festival the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is performing three Jolivet works in three days. At the BBC Proms there have been three performances of Jolivet's music in 117 years, the last in 1997. How about swapping the Sound of Music for the BBC NOW playing Jolivet in the 2012 Proms season? More on André Jolivet in the my serendipitously titled 2009 post Avoiding the hazards of reputation inflation.

* I swear that my New Year's resolution was to be nice to the BBC and yes, it is good that they are devoting airtime to composers other than Mahler and Shostakovich. But why has the Radio 3 website banished all diacritics? The musicians names are Pascal Rophé and André Jolivet, not Pascal Rophe and Andre Jolivet. Presumably the need to be search engine friendly takes priority over linguistic accuracy and simple courtesy. Or is just plain laziness? - the BBC National Orchestra of Wales website uses diacritics. For information the rule On An Overgrown Path is diacritics in body copy but not headlines; a compromise which hopefully keeps both the search engines and scholars happy. Perhaps the Radio 3 management thinks diacritic is another word for a bad review?

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