Friday, June 29, 2012

Now here comes the Simon Bolivar bestseller


PR material arrives promoting Candace Allen's new book Soul Music about "the power classical music has over those from a non-white culture, particularly disadvantaged ones". Candace Allen is an African-American writer who was married to Simon Rattle, and in the course of the book she "visits Palestine, Venezuela, Scotland, the streets of London and Kinshasa". Independent endorsements of the new book come from Marshal Marcus, head of the Southbank Centre's El Sistema programme, from Martin Campbell White, ceo of agent Askonas Holt which represents the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Daniel Barenboim, the West Eastern Divan Orchestra and Simon Rattle, and from Simon Hewitt-Jones who plays in Barenboim's West Eastern Divan Orchestra. To add to the independent advocacy, a glowing New Statesman critique of Soul Music by Guy Dammann is quoted; you may remember that Dammann's Guardian review of a Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra BBC Prom featured here in a which asked 'Was the critic at the same concert as the rest of us?' I have requested a copy of Soul Music, so watch this space.

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Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

'It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless'.

Israeli artist Dani Karavan created this memorial to the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin in the Spanish town of Portbou. Titled Passages, the memorial is a sculptural installation that is integrated into the landscape. Visitors enter a passage that slopes down through the cliff face before it falls vertically into the sea below. Progress is blocked at the point that the passage falls away by a glass screen on which the quotation above by Walter Benjamin is etched in five languages.

As a German-Jew Benjamin had been stripped of his nationality by the Nazis and was living in exile in Paris. When Germany defeated France in June 1940 Benjamin fled south; he had been issued with a visa for the US and planned to travel there via Spain and Portugal. Like many refugees including Alma Mahler and her husband Franz Werfel, he used the route along the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia to cross from occupied France into neutral Spain. But when Benjamin reached the first Spanish town across the border, Portbou, he was told that Franco's government had cancelled all transit visas and had ordered the Spanish police to return refugees crossing the border from France.

Walter Benjamin was convinced that the collaborationist Vichy regime would hand him over to the Nazis if he was sent back, and rather than face this he killed himself with a dose of morphine in a hotel in Portbou on September 26th, 1940. The bitter irony is that he was misinformed about the cancellation of exit visas, and others travelling with him continued their passage the next day and eventually reached Lisbon safely. Walter Benjamin is buried in the town's Catholic cemetery, which is next to the Passages memorial. The epitaph on his headstone reads 'There is no document of culture that at the same time is not one of barbarism'.


Although Walter Benjamin remains little known outside the academic world, his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936) has reached a wider audience. This posits that modern techniques of reproduction have destroyed the aura, or authority, of original works of art - a thesis that is very relevant to the dilemma facing live classical music in the age of the iPod. So as a soundtrack to this post I propose not one of the moving but familiar laments for the Jewish diaspora, but a work of art that takes mechanical reproduction well beyond the primitive technologies known to Walter Benjamin.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, French bass player Renaud Garcia-Fons comes from a Catalonian family, the soundtrack is a new CD recorded by him in a 15th century priory in French Catalonia, and I discovered it in an independent store in Ceret, just across the border from Portbou. But there is another reason why Solo - the Marcevol Concert fits with this post - it blurs the boundary between original and reproduced art that so preoccupied Walter Benjamin. Solo - the Marcevol Concert is a CD of a live concert, but during the performance Renaud Garcia-Fons creates his improvisations by underpinning the solo bass line with live multi-tracking using delays, loops and other devices - see this video. It is a virtuoso display of both musicianship and technical expertise that takes Walter Benjamin's musings on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' into a whole new dimension.


* July 15th, 2012 is the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of Walter Benjamin's birth.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fiddling while Britain burns


Barclays' chairman Marcus Agius, whose job is on the line over today's interest rate scandal, is also senior independent director of the BBC. After a recent shareholder revolt over executive pay, Agius promised Barclays would be "engaging differently and more purposefully". Good to know the BBC is in safe hands.

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A tweet from beyond the grave


Decode that tweet here. Truly, now we rise and are everywhere...

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Has classical music finally found its contact high?


Mutterings are coming from both sides of the Atlantic about the reluctance of Aldeburgh Festival artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard to engage with Britten's music. It is quite right that those mutterings are voiced, but it is also important they do not drown out some of the notably adventurous things that Aimard is doing at Aldeburgh, just one example being his Piano Colours project with kinetic artist Norman Perryman.

Last week's Piano Colours performance at the Aldeburgh Festival was a revelatory experience, and much of the credit for that must go to the Festival's artistic director. My assumption had been that this fusion of visual art and music was the result of Norman Perryman persuading Pierre-Laurent Aimard to experiment with a multi-media recital. But it turns out the collaboration came about the other way round - Aimard saw Perryman's work when their paths crossed at a Concertgebouw concert in Amsterdam, at which the artist was creating graphics for Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, and the pianist was playing a Ravel concerto.

Aimard was so impressed with Perryman's kinetic response to Scriabin that he approached the artist about working together, but he was not simply proposing a piano recital with added visuals. In fact the project is a genuine partnership with Aimard devising a programme specifically to meet the specific technical needs of the kinetic artist - Norman Perryman's refreshingly low-tech technique can be seen above and his real time creativity can be experienced in the video below where his kineticism responds to the two piano version of John Adams' Hallelujah Junction. And Aimard's programe for Piano Colours was certainly adventurous; although it contained no Britten it juxtaposed rarely performed spectralists Tristan Murail and George Benjamin with Liszt, Scriabin and Debussy.

Audience reaction to Piano Colourssuggested that classical music has finally found its elusive contact high, with the throng trying to talk to Norman Perryman after the performance reminding me of the Festival Hall green room after a Bernstein concert. In the post-recital talk Norman described how at previous kinetic performances the scales had dropped from the eyes of young concertgoers, allowing them to 'see' contemporary music. This means 'seeing the music' must have a place in every music promoters tool kit; but, and this is where this path becomes very interesting, there is more to this project than just constructing a tool to help contemporary music reach a new audience.

In the post-concert talk Pierre-Laurent Aimard described how he watched Norman Perryman's kinetic visuals during the performance, and went on explain that the visuals actually helped mould his interpretation; while from his side Norman recounted how he took visual and aural cues from the pianist. Which was the eureka moment for me - suddenly I understood that Piano Colours was not a solo piano recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard with added graphics, but a duet for piano and improvised kinetic art, with the same risks and rewards as a conventional duo performance.

So Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Norman Perryman have created much more than a powerful classical music marketing tool, they have also created a new and notably adventurous performance form. This is a considerable achievement and their pioneering work needs to be taken very seriously. But a little humour never goes amiss; so I will end by suggesting a sure-fire way of bringing Piano Colours to the attention of a very influential audience - a performance at next year's Aldeburgh Festival of Britten's Piano Concerto Op. 13 with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist and Norman Perryman as kinetic artist.


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Dune soundtrack


Most of yesterday was spent at the coast near where the composer E.J. Moeran grew up. Moeran said his Sibelius influenced Symphony in G minor "was conceived around the sand dunes and marshes of East Norfolk", which is where my header photo was taken. Samples of the symphony can be heard on Youtube, but as the music is coupled with typically tacky graphics I am linking rather than embedding. And talking of Sibelius...

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Classical music was big business back in 1951


In 1950 Pablo Casals presented the first Prades Festival in the town's church of St Pierre to celebrate the Bach bicentenary. For the following year's Festival the Bishop of Perpignan declined to make the church available, arguing that the Bach anniversary had been a special case. So the 1951 Prades Festival was held in the Palace of the Kings of Majorca (Palais des Rois de Majorque) in nearby Perpignan, see the photo above. Columbia Records had exclusive recording rights for the early Prades Festival and classical music was big business even then - the 1951 Festival was bankrolled by Columbia to the tune of $25,000 via an advance against royalties. This was a very considerable sum in those days, but Columbia's investment paid handsome dividends as their recordings made at this and other Prades Festivals remain in the catalogue more than half a century later. Classic Casals performances captured at the 1951 Festival include his accounts of Beethoven's Archduke Trio and Schubert's Trio No 1 in B flat major with Eugene Istomin and Alexander Schneider, and Beethoven's Cello Sonata No 2 in G minor, Op 5 with Rudolf Serkin. My photo of the Palace of the Kings of Majorca was taken a few weeks ago, the same view was used as a motif on the original LP releases of the 1951 Casals Festival recordings - see sleeve below.


* More echoes of Pablo Casals here and here. The Palace of the Kings of Majorca is on the edge of the Saint Jacques area of Perpignan. This is the city's traditional gypsy enaclave and it featured with photos in a post here last year.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Aldeburgh feels the 'Olympic effect'


Long-standing Olympic Games sponsor McDonald's has a monopoly on all catering outlets within the Olympic park in east London; there are four McDonald's on the main Olympic site and the flagship is a 1500 seater restaurant which has the dubious distinction of being the world's biggest burger outlet. French writer Marc Perelman takes up the theme of the malign influence of major sporting events in his newly published book Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague in which he deplores the "de-intellectualising" effect of sport and identifies how events such as the Olympics have "become the sole project of a society without projects". Writing in a perceptive Guardian review of Perelman's book, Nicholas Lezard describes how the toxic combination of global brands and sport "is a kind of nightmare capitalism, where, in pseudo-Darwinian fashion, ultimately only one brand survives. The grey monoculture of state communism, once the west's great fear, has been replaced by a gaudy monoculture".

It is just ninety minutes drive from the Olympic park to Aldeburgh. But fortunately the much vaunted 'Olympic effect' has not yet reached Britten's beloved Snape marshes; which means my header image depicts, God willing, no more than a PaintShop Pro realised bad dream. This year's Aldeburgh Festival, which finished yesterday, was Britten-lite, hopefully in anticipation of next year's bumper anniversary celebration and not because of artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard's reluctance to engage with Britten's music. Whatever the reason, the 2012 Festival was a feast of diversity that proved yet again that there is an alternative to the brand driven gaudy monoculture of the mainstream musical establishment - an alternative that ranged from the Monteverdi Choir in Tallis and Byrd to John Cage's Musicircus, and from Jordi Savall's passionate multiculturalism to Ives' Universe Symphony.

But on July 5th Aldeburgh will feel the 'Olympic effect' when the Olympic torch relay sponsored by Coca-Cola, Lloyds TSB and Samsung visits the town. On its route the flame will pass the Church of St Peter & St Paul where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears are buried. I suggest that at this point the Olympic torch is extinguished in deference to the beacon of cultural excellence that has blazed in Aldeburgh for the past sixty-five years - a beacon that will blaze even more brightly during next year's Britten centenary celebrations, and will continue to blaze long after the ethically bankrupt 2012 Olympics and its tawdry legacy of giant hamburger outlets are forgotten.

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What harbour shelters peace?


In a celebrated 2011 April Fools' post I exclusively broke the news that the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth in 2013 would be marked by a cycle of the composer's operas given in staged productions at Olympic venues - a cycle culminating in a gala performance of Peter Grimes at Lee Valley White Water Centre. Which should be read in conjunction with the recent non-April Fools' news that the culmination of the 2013 Britten celebrations will be three staged performances of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach - seen in my header photo. All I can say to Aldeburgh's Jonathan Reekie is he should bewaret of that white water.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reformation symphony


An email arrives inviting me "to take a look" - ie angling for a link - at a new classical music website that is "funded by Universal Music, but editorially independent from them". As these angling emails usually do, it cites one of my posts which the sender found "especially enjoyable". A couple of minutes research tells me that the writer of the email, who is chief honcho of the new site, was editor of the now defunct Classic FM Magazine for ten years. The "especially enjoyable" post is titled 'Is dumbing up classical music's next big thing?'

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Friday, June 22, 2012

The dead moose on the Simon Bolivar stage


Elsewhere there is much well deserved praise for yesterday's Big Noise concert in Stirling featuring Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the young musicians from the Raploch estate, and anyone who knows that deprived neighbourhood will have been deeply moved by the impact that the Venezuelan music education movement is having there. Which still fails to explain why everyone connected with the event managed, once again, to ignore the large, dead and malodorous moose in the centre of the Raploch stage.

El Sistema was founded by José Abreu in 1975, which is twenty-four years before Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuelan. But El Sistema and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (note the full title) have close links with Chávez, and, as the New York Times reports, the Chávez administration funds almost all of El Sistema's $29 million annual budget. Funding that also pays for the prominent Venezuelan national colours worn around the musician's necks throughout the concert, and the Venezuela branded jackets they donned for the finale - see photo above - and then tossed away to the Raploch youngsters. It is all a wonderful PR exercise for Venezuela under Chávez; which is fortunate as the regime needs all the good PR it can muster, as leading independent monitor Human Rights Watch reports:
The weakening of Venezuela’s democratic system of checks and balances under president Hugo Chávez has contributed to a precarious human rights situation. Without judicial checks on its actions, the government has systematically undermined free expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of human rights groups to function.

Violent crime is rampant in Venezuela, yet few people are prosecuted or convicted, as law enforcement is seemingly unable or unwilling to effectively tackle it. Extrajudicial killings by security agents continue, and impunity for such human rights crimes remains the norm. Prison conditions are deplorable, and prison fatality rates are high due to inmate violence.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic online shop is selling a Gustavo Dudamel T-Shirt which carries the message 'Music is a fundamental human right'. Which is quite true; but freedom is an even more fundamental human right, and, as the report quoted above reminds us, it is being denied to many in Venezuela today.

If I had a magic wand I would wave it to speed up the roll-out of the priceless work being done in Raploch and elsewhere - see my report on our local In Harmony project. But I would also wave the wand over the media; so that as well as reporting on that priceless work, it at last admits that there is a dead moose centre stage at every Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra concert. And I would wave it over the organisers of those concerts and give them the courage to say to the Venezuelans: 'We love you and your work to pieces and want to do more with you. But music transcends nations, and political propaganda has no place on the concert platform. So the next time, please leave your flags at home'.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Gershwin - clean, rhythmic yet free as a bird


Hello Bob, your asserting of the "middle way" is brilliant! If you don't mind, I'd like to use that term when I address audiences (with credit given to you for coining it). This is a perfect way to refer to the Glière, which is a piece I've known and loved for years. Indeed it is neither easy nor difficult. However, it is exceedingly difficult to write such music, and among all composers Glière is one of those who gets least credit for such an estimable accomplishment.

Your post brought back a memory: toward the end of my tenure with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, I went to film composer John Williams with a composition of mine (a large concert overture written in a style most unpopular with the academic composers teaching at my school and many others). Williams was very complimentary and offered this perspective upon it and, I think, what he was and is doing as a composer. He said "People don't realize how difficult it is to write in a populist idiom." And hence it is easy to dismiss exceptional music based upon the superficial perspective of outward appeal. Williams' words have stayed with me, and yours today echo and refine his. Bravo!

Regarding butchered Gershwin, here's a link [see above] to what I think is an extraordinary performance of Gershwin. What struck me here is the lack of effortful affectation in the manner that most American musicians now play Gershwin, stretching it out of shape to mimic feeling. [The pianist is Ludmil Angelov.] This sounds much like Gershwin himself played his own work: clean, rhythmic yet free as a bird. I'm sending it to you as a riposte to the many execrable Gershwin performances, some of which I was compelled (by a paycheck!) to participate in.

All best, John McLaughlin Williams
More than happy for John to use the 'middle way' analogy in his concert preambles, particularly if the performances are as scintillating as the one in the video above. But credit goes to the Buddha, not me - 'middle way' was one of several playful Buddhist references in that post. And John has more to say on the featured composer in 'It's Gershwin! It's Glorious! It's Ghettoization!'

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You read it there last


Amusing to see the self-styled "UK's most influential music site" finally spotting that the London Philharmonic Orchestra is sponsored by Japan Tobacco International. In seven months time I expect the same über-influential blogger to be exclusively breaking the news that British American Tobacco funds the Royal Opera House and oil-spiller extraordinaire BP is a premier partner of the currently trending London 2012 Festival.

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The rain of King Gustavo


Elsewhere Alex Ross reports "The good news is that there seems to be no chance of rain in New York tomorrow, as Make Music NY takes hold of the city". However the forecast above is not so good for this evening's outdoor concert by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in Stirling, Scotland. Which is sad but not surprising; because when we lived in that delightful city the locals used to say "If you can see the hills, rain is on its way, and if you can't see the hills, the rain has arrived". I eagerly await tonight's live BBC 4 TV broadcast of the concert from Raploch, my thoughts on this important event appeared here a few months ago in 'Classical music has many saviours'.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Music that is neither easy nor difficult


Dependent arising takes me from a red poppy flowering in our front garden to Reinhold Glière's ballet of the same name. As I write Glière's Third Symphony Il'ya Muromets plays in the Naxos recording seen above. Glière lived in Russia from 1875 and 1956 and wrote well crafted music that is neither easy nor difficult to listen to. Classical music is making many mistakes in its desperation to connect with new audiences, and one of these is to concentrate exclusively on just two marketing categories - difficult' music, Shostakovich, Mahler etc, for the enlightened listener, and 'easy' music, butchered Gershwinmusicals etc, for the lay listener. Such dualism ignores the middle way, a wealth of music that is neither easy nor difficult to listen to, and which is perfectly capable of winning new audiences. Glière is just one example, Howard Hanson is another, and I am sure readers can add other names to the list. Naxos has a particular flair for spotting 'neither easy nor difficult' music, a flair that has been met with the occasional sniffy response. Credit also goes to Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave the BBC Proms premiere of Glière's Third Symphony in 2007 in defiance of the prevailing slice, dice and bland-out culture.   

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Music beyond the concept of nation


Between 1887 and 1895 Eric Satie earned his living playing piano in Montmartre cabarets, notably at the Le Chat Noir where the other patrons included Claude Debussy and Paul Verlaine. On my iPod during a visit to Paris last December was Satie in the Orient performed by the transcultural Ensemble Sarband. This presents Satie's music in performances by Eastern instruments judiciously augmented by Western forces. Satie's scores are respected almost to the letter, with the objective of creating not a fashionable musical fusion, but what an illuminating sleeve note describes as music that is "neither East nor West".


Le Chat Noir is on the hill in the north of Paris called La Butte Montmartre, and at the foot is Les Bouffes du Nord, the home of Peter Brooks' transcultural theatre group. In his essential biography of the director Michael Kustow describes how Brooks' theatre group is "not a swap-shop of skills and techniques, but... a culture like yoghurt, culture as fermentation". Classical music, which so often views transcultural projects as swap-shops of skills and techniques, can learn a lot from Eric Satie and Peter Brook. And it can also learn from another example of cultural fermentation that I experienced on the same trip to Paris.

The Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris was founded after the First World War by the visionary French statesman and humanist André Honnorat who believed that bringing students together from across the world would generate mutual understanding between peoples, and therefore peace. One of the main features of the Cité Internationale Universitaire campus are the residences built by celebrated architects including Le Corbusier, Willem Marinus Dudok, Heydar Ghiai and Claude Parent, see footer image. The campus is purely residential and provides accommodation for the main Paris universities; a culture of fermentation is created by mixing nationalities between the various national residencies.

As happens so often, many paths and cultures converge here. Eric Satie shared with Peter Brook a fascination with mysticism: in 1890 he became the official composer of the occult Order of Rosicrucians and his Sonneries de la Rose-Croix features on Satie in the Orient. Ensemble Sarband appeared in my inter-cultural post and podcast about their Arabian Passion According to J.S. Bach. The CD Satie in the Orient is released on Doutak, which is the label of Syrian-born Abed Azrié whose transcultural setting of Gospel of St John has also featured here and is seen below.


Eric Satie's music was, of course, a major influence on John Cage. In 1930 Cage arrived in Paris to study architecture. After spending time studying alone at the Bibliothèque Mazarine he went to work for the influential modern architect Ernő Goldfinger. Cage worked for Goldfinger for six months, during which time the architect was working on moving his practice to a new studio in the rue de la Cité Universitaire.

My very generous host at the Cité Internationale Universitaire was North Carolina born and longtime Paris resident Adrian McDonnell, who previously collaborated with me to bring the music of his teacher Peter Paul Fuchs to a wider audience. Adrian is a trustee of the Cité Internationale Universitaire and music director of the Orchestre de la Cité Internationale. This training orchestra of young professional musicians from around the world, which bridges the gap between conservatoires and the major orchestras, featured in my 2010 post 'Playing the classical music name game'.

While in Paris I attended the premiere of transcultural troubador Titi Robin's River Banks at the Institut du Monde Arabe and my earlier post about that concert quoted the Moroccan-born novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, who is one of many celebrated figures to benefit from a residency at the Cité Internationale Universitaire. Tahar Ben Jelloun is also quoted in the book accompanying Mare Nostrum, the valedictory album from those great instigators of cultural fermentation Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall.

That other great practitioner of cultural fermentation Peter Brook made an acclaimed film of eclectic mystic G.I. Gurdjieff's Meeting with Remarkable Men, and many remarkable men and women have appeared as we have followed the abstruse path of Satie in the Orient. Abstruse it certainly is, but all these remarkable men and women are linked by a belief which is under threat in our increasingly jingoistic age - a belief that, to quote the Sufi musician Kudsi Ergunner who worked with Peter Brook, "art, literature and music are beyond the concept of nation".


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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bad call Your Holiness


Tibetan Buddhism has received a lot of support On An Overgrown Path over the years, but I am afraid the Dalai Lama earns multiple demerits for choosing Russell Brand to front his appearance yesterday in Manchester. As part of a mutual admiration routine the senior figure of Tibetan Buddhism described TV comedian Brand as "a strange, wonderful man". Which contrasts somewhat with the words used by the UK media regulator Ofcom in 2009 to describe a phone call made by Brand to a young woman during a BBC radio programme - "gratuitously offensive, humiliating and demeaning". In recent years there has been criticism of the Dalai Lama's decreasing political engagement and increasing celebrity engagement, a viewpoint I now have some sympathy with. Header photo was taken by me at the Dashang Kagyu Ling - Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in La Boulaye, France and featured in a 2009 post about Jonathan Harvey's String Quartets.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Where would you file this CD?


Harmonia Mundi's retail stores in France are veritable Aladdin's Caves for hardcore CD collectors, and it is difficult to visit one without parting with some serious cash. During a recent visit to their Perpignan store I scored the very rewarding The Sufi Spirit, the Spirit of Love by Nassima Chabane, an Algerian singer who specialises in the Arab-Andalusian repertoire. But that music will have to wait for another day, because it is the disc that caught my eye as I left the store that is the starting point for today's post.

Quite a lot of time had been spent cruising the shelves for chance finds, and the prospect of lunch in the form of a marmite de poisson in the Place Arago beckoned. But as I left a CD in the store's window caught my eye -, Requiem For A Pink Moon: An Elizabethan Tribute to Nick Drake, by Joel Fredericksen and his Ensemble Phoenix Munich. Now even a marmite de poisson can wait for a Nick Drake discovery, so I headed back into the store and asked to see the disc, explaining that I had missed it in the displays inside. To which the helpful and knowledgable lady manager responded "You didn't see the CD inside because it is under the counter - we have not yet worked out which category to display it in". Which is quite understandable, as on the album bass voice and lutenist Joel Frederiksen and his three piece early music ensemble of viola da gamba, theorbo/archlute and drum/tenor perform songs by Nick Drake (1948-1974), John Dowland (1562/3-1626), Michael Cavendish (c1565-1628), Thomas Campion ((c1567-1619), plus one of Frederiksen's own songs and his arrangement of excerpts from the Gregorian Requiem Mass.

Joel Frederiksen is an early music specialist as well as long-standing devotee of Nick Drake's unique brand of beauty-in-bleakness. Like a Sufi adept, Nick was in the world, but not of it - that Sufi reference is not totally contrived, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention who played on Nick's first album, Five Leaves Left, was a disciple of the Sufi Sheikh Abdul Qadir at the time. As recounted previously, Nick had busked in the sunshine of the Midi, where this path started, and travelled on to Marrakech, where he had a brief encounter with the Rolling Stones. But, despite this, there was something quintessentially English about him. Educated at Marlborough College and Cambridge (he dropped out of the latter), Nick spent his last days at his parent's home in bucolic Tanworth-in-Arden, and died there in 1974 aged just twenty-six.

Nick Drake's songs comfortably hold their own in the heady company of John Dowland and other Elizabethan masters, and it is the shared English roots of his chosen composers that bind Joel Frederiksen's audacious album together. The Forest of Arden around Nick's home in Warwickshire is thought to be the setting for As You Like It, that pastoral romp by the greatest of all Elizabethan masters William Shakespeare. So I will misappropriate Duke Senior's celebrated lines from the play and offer them as my response to Joel Frederiksen's Requiem For A Pink Moon:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything
I would not change it
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Secret agents behind royal command performance


In the Telegraph article above James Rhodes asks "Why was there no British pianist at the Jubilee concert?" Well, the answer is quite simple. American Keith Lockhart, who conducted the Jubilee concert, is managed by Columbia Artists Management Inc, who also manage Jubilee pianist Lang Lang and handle US representation of the band that played at the royal bash, the BBC Concert Orchestra. And staying on this path, Columbia Artists Management featured here recently in a blast from the past.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thoughts on a tweet-sized Verdi Requiem


Yesterday I switched on BBC Radio 3 and found myself listening to an extract from Verdi's Requiem. To my astonishment the back announcement at the end of the Libera Me told me the extract was part of a concert, not a record programme. The concert was billed as "Music to Die For - a heavenly mix of devilishly popular classics" and performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, with extracts from the Mozart and Fauré Requiems and from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde also featuring in it. Single movement extracts have become the norm on Radio 3 record programmes, but this is the first time I have come across a concert of single movement excerpts from the mainstream repertoire. Which set me thinking about the following passage from Peter Mayne's A Year in Marrakesh, a book, incidentally, which dates from 1953.
'...it is also the way the Qu'ran is learnt, the 'perspicuous book' of Islam. Muslim children sit swaying back and forth in their tiny windowless schoolrooms while the preceptor flicks at them with his twig to hold their attention, endlessly repeating the verses. At first it means nothing, even the language is unfamiliar, but finally it takes charge. Once the Qu'ran has taken charge, the children are safely Muslim for ever.'
Today classical music is sliced, diced and generally blanded-out in the vain hope that it will provide instant gratification for the Twitter generation. But there is another way for the music to take charge; sadly the alternative method does not deliver instant results, but in my experience it still works very well. While travelling recently my listening included music recorded in Syria some years before the current tragic conflict. The Aleppian Music Room is a double CD of traditional Arab classical music performed by Julian Weiss' Ensemble al-Kindī with singers Sabri Moudallal and Omar Sarmini, see sleeve above and photo below. During five weeks away from home I listened to this alien music repeatedly. To misquote Peter Mayne, at first it meant almost nothing, even the harmonic language was unfamiliar, but finally it took charge, and I became a devotee of Arab classical music, presumably for ever - radio producers please note.

I bought The Aleppian Music Room in the Harmonia Mundi Boutique in Avignon. It was recorded in 1998 and is one in a series of 'two for the price of one' reissues of CDs by Julien Weiss and Ensemble al-Kindī on the Chant du Monde label. My voyage of discovery was smoothed by the excellent English sleeve notes by the late author, composer and authority on Arab music Christian Poché. Informed continuity announcements are another victim of the blanding-out of classical radio, while the disappearing art of sleeve note writing is presumably the price we must pay for the instant gratification of MP3 downloads. But enough carping; let us just be thankful that in an age where the Verdi Requiem has to be served up in tweet sized morsels we still have chunky re-releases like The Aleppian Music Room.

After a period on the fringes of the counterculture, French born Julien Weiss converted to Islam in 1983 and took the name Jalal Eddine. In 1995 he made his home in a 14th century Mamelouk residence in Aleppo, which is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and still an important cultural center. The Aleppian Music Room was recorded in Aleppo, both Sabri Moudallal and Omar Sarmini were born in the city, and it was also the home of musicologist Christian Poché. Aleppo is at the centre of the current terrible events in Syria, it has suffered extensive damage and many lives have been lost. So let us remember that while 'Music to die for' may mean one thing to ratings chasers in London, it means something very different to the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. My 2010 post about John Adams' Syrian connection came with a prescient health warning about the political regime, while there is more music from Aleppo here.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pierre-Laurent Aimard sees the light


George Benjamin’s Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm is captured as kinetic art above. I make no apologies for returning to the path of seeing the music, which now takes us from Janis Joplin's Porsche, via a photo-choreographed Mà Vlast, to the current Aldeburgh Festival. On June 22nd Pierre-Laurent Aimard is giving a Piano Colours recital at Snape with kinetic artist Norman Perryman; here is the Festival brochure's preview of this classical 'happening' - "'Perryman describes his art as ‘kinetic painting’ – painted on glass and projected on to big screens by overhead projectors, his continuously shifting semiabstract expressionist visuals are a synchronised commentary on the evocative imagery of Liszt, Scriabin’s extraordinarily rich harmonic palette, and George Benjamin’s rhythmic transformations. Binding these together and left unadorned are Debussy’s Preludes – songs without words, canvases of the imagination".

The screen grab above is from a rehearsal for the Aldeburgh recital, and the multi-media programme is also being performed at the Helsinki Festival in August and Salzburg Mozarteum in November. More essential background on Norman Perryman's own blog, which also contains this insight into classical music's ability to challenge concert hall conventions:

'Reactions to my live kinetic painting can be anything from the begrudging “Perryman’s visuals didn’t detract from the music” (the purist classical music critic) to “His visuals really gave us an insight into this difficult music” (the curious and pleasantly surprised critic). You also get grumbles from old Aunt Bessie, who didn’t look at the programme: “Came to hear Beethoven and I had to watch kinetic painting with Stravinsky”.'
So classical music is gradually seeing the light. Janet Joplin's Porsche and Bill Haim's Liquid Light Show featured here four years ago, and in that post I asked "But, shouldn't we be making classical music more visual to attract younger audiences?" Also in 2009 I showcased Alexander Lauterwasser's use of cymatics to graphically portry the music of Boulez and Stockhausen. Three years ago Jonathan Harvey said in an interview, and not to universal acclaim, "The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous", and two years ago Aldeburgh's early experiments with adding visual slam to classical music were reported here. And now photo-choreography is going mainstream at Snape, Helsinki and Salzburg.

So what is going to win new audiences? Lang Lang playing butchered Gershwin, or literally giving concertgoers an insight into challenging music? I know where my vote goes... Listen to Pierre-Laurent Aimard talking to me about Elliott Carter here.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Music journalism is now a redundant concept


Recent re-reading has included Jajouka Rolling Stone by Stephen Davis, a music journalist whose credits also include biographies of Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson. After only a few pages of re-reading Stephen's book I was struck by the quality of the writing. Now, good though Jajouka Rolling Stone is, it would be presumptuous to claim it is great literature; however, what struck me is that by comparison with much current music journalism, the writing is refreshingly competent and readable.

Elsewhere there has been discussion about the future of classical music journalism, during which Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, is quoted as saying that "music journalism must be recognised as the skilled profession it is, and should be respected and remunerated accordingly". Which implies that music journalism is no longer recognised as a skilled profession, a proposition that merits further consideration.

Music journalism, as practiced by Harold C. Schonberg, Ernest Newman and others, was once a profession defined by the skills of its practitioners, who were aided and abetted by the narrowband nature of the then dominant print media. But in recent years two things have happened: narrowband print has been replaced by broadband digital media, and the quality of music journalism has declined in parallel. It is not the purpose of this post to speculate whether the two are linked, but it may not be a coincidence that the 1993 publication date of Jajouka Rolling Stone predates the advent of texting and tweeting.

Despite Oliver Condy's assertion, music journalism does not have a God-given right to be recognised and respected as a skilled profession. Particularly when a leading music journalist is described by a senior industry figure in the New York Times in the following words: “For me it’s beyond belief how any journalist in five pages can make so many factual mistakes. It’s shocking. Also, he really doesn’t understand the record business.”

Paradigm shifts mean that print based ‘music journalism’ is being replaced by digitally enabled ‘music knowledge’. At the apex of the music knowledge pyramid are today’s leading writers such as Paul Griffiths and Alex Ross, who are there because they are good writers, not because they are members of a recognized skilled profession. While across the broad base of the pyramid is a mess of bloggers who may be unskilled and, incidentally, unremunerated, but who contribute in varying degrees to the sum total of music knowledge. Music journalism as a profession is a redundant concept within this new knowledge pyramid, and a large part of the blame for that lies with the very people who are now telling us that that music journalists deserve recognition, respect and commensurate remuneration.

 * Read my discussion with Stephen Davis about Jajouka Rolling Stone here.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Headed for a new life in the stars


Truly shocking news has come of the death from cancer of Arkansas born, New Orleans educated and London domiciled trumpeter, educator and composer Abram Wilson, seen above, at the age of just 39. I came into contact with Abram through our shared passion for the music of Philippa Schuyler. Last October I wrote here about Abram's critically acclaimed jazz suite Philippa and he had recently received an Arts Council grant to develop this project into a theatrical production. Only recently Abram had discussed with me researching scores of Philippa's compositions held at Syracuse University as well as other documents held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. What a loss..... Here is the statement from Abram's website.
It is with great sadness that we have to tell you that yesterday afternoon Abram left this earth for a new life in the stars. It was where he was always aiming and where he now belongs. He was an inspiring and wonderful man, one of the world's best jazz trumpeters and a gifted educator and composer. He has touched so many people's lives with his "warmth, passion, virtuosity and soul" and will want to be remembered as such.
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Friday, June 08, 2012

Music that is utterly new, yet timeless


Classical music is reassuringly resistant to mass marketing techniques such as TV advertising. But there is one notable exception - Gregorian chant, which is tailor-made for the mind, body and spirit market, and as a result responds well to promotion. Plainsong has a long history of charting, starting with Angel records 1993 recording made in the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, an album that reached number three in the Billboard pop chart and which has now sold more than four million copies worldwide. Over the years major labels have repeatedly returned to what has been termed "monk rock" to generate classical album sales; Decca's CD with the nuns of L'Abbaye Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux just failed to reach number one in the UK Christmas 2011 classical chart, and in the last few months Sony Masterworks have given Gregorian a trans-Atlantic flavour with a new album cut at The Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Santa Fe.

But despite its chart success Gregorian chant is a marketing conundrum: it responds to promotion, but it is difficult to produce a chant album that is new and different - even when sung by nuns or American monks. But my recent travels uncovered some chant recordings which are very different, and which could offer an enterprising record label a remarkable marketing opportunity.

The path starts several years ago when I visited the the Dominican Monastery of Notre-Dame de Beaufort in Brittany. I had travelled to Notre-Dame de Beaufort to hear a very special sound, because the Sisters there use the kora - an African bridge-harp - to accompany the Divine Offices. In a post about my visit I described how in 1963 the Abbey of Solesmes, which is the centre of Gregorian chant scholarship, had founded the sister Benedictine monastery of Keur Moussa in Sénégal in west Africa. In the absence of the usual pipe organ and in the light of Vatican II's contemporaneous exhortation to embrace the vernacular, the kora was introduced to accompany the liturgy at Keur Moussa. This established the convention of using the kora in Catholic worship, and the photo below, in which a kora can be seen, was taken by me at Notre-Dame de Beaufort, and my original post about my visit can be read here.



While at Notre-Dame de Beaufort in 2010 I heard the kora accompanying the liturgy in a very moving celebration of Vespers, but at the time could not trace any recordings made at L'Abbaye de Keur Moussa in Sénégal. Now fast forward three years to my journey by car last week from Catalonia to Norfolk. En route through northern France I took my wife to see the Benedictine monastery of L'Abbaye Saint-Paul de Wisques where I had stayed several years ago and which featured in the post On the road with Olivier Messiaen.

Like many other enterprising monasteries, L'Abbaye Saint-Paul has an excellent shop which contains many riches - and to my delight those riches last week included a range of CDs from L'Abbaye de Keur Moussa. At Keur Moussa the sacred liturgy is celebrated using African rhythms and accompanied by kora, together with balafon and djembe from the African percussion family, as seen in the header photo. The result is summed up succinctly by an Amazon reviewer - "Unlike most attempts at mixing musical styles, it is unforced and genuine. The haunting Senegalese rhythms and real instrumental texture, added to the serene, worshipful tone of Gregorian chant, give something utterly new, yet timeless". Which throws into perspective the futile debate about 'authentic performance; because at Keur Moussa deliciously inauthentic Gregorian chant comes with the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the ultimate arbiter of Gregorian authenticity, the Abbey of Solesmes. Which just goes to prove that the only truly authentic performance is the one you are currently listening to.

The success of David Fanshawe's African Sanctus is a reminder of the power of interculturation, and there are some similarities between the Keur Moussa sound and the African Sanctus. So I offer the African monk rock marketing opportunity gratis to any mass market oriented record labels among my readers. But they will need to unravel the licensing of the technically quite acceptable recordings; my discs were released in France by Art & Musique, but Amazon has other titles from a different label - it is probably best to go to the source and the European contact address for Keur Moussa is the Abbey of Solesmes. As that Amazon reviewer said, music that is utterly new, yet timeless, and there are also noteworthy parallels between the Keur Moussa sound and the the pioneering ecumenical music of Taizé that featured here back in 2006.



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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Classical music loses one million listeners


Audience data for UK radio stations for the first quarter 2012 was published while I was travelling. This quarter includes the nine days during which BBC Radio 3’s much-hyped Schubert Experience was broadcast, but the BBC-centric UK media and blogs that did the hyping and hyping  still failed to report that the data records a distinctly bad experience. In Q1 2012 the audience for Radio 3 fell to 1.902 million listeners, a drop of 15.8% from the same quarter the previous year. Hours per listener did increase, but total listening hours (audience x hours per listener) – the key measure of a radio station’s health – plummeted by 13.6%.

Writing on the Radio 3 blog network controller Roger Wright, who has implemented an unprecedented series of audience chasing initiatives including a classical chart, disingenuously declares that "audience figures are only one measure of our success". Radio 3’s dismal Q1 performance follows an established trend that is the result of two fundamental strategic errors by its network controller. First, Wright has relentlessly pursued his predecessor Nicholas Kenyons’ policy of chasing the commercial station Classic FM downmarket – a futile strategy as the commercial station already has that base very well covered. Secondly, Wright has failed to grasp that the mass market bandwagon he is trying to hitch Radio 3 to is fast losing momentum. As has been pointed out here before, the combined audience of Radio 3 and Classic FM is in sharp decline. This trend is confirmed in Q1 2012 when the commercial station’s audience fell by 10.5%, meaning that in one year the two classical stations have lost an astonishing total of one million listeners.

These two strategic errors mean that BBC Radio 3 is now locked in a futile fight to the death over a fast declining market segment. As a result the nascent ‘dumbing-up’ opportunity is being ignored by the legacy broadcasters, but is well served by new web based media led by internet radio - which explains, at least in part, that haemorrhage of a million listeners.

The mass market fallacy is confirmed by the performance of BBC 6 Music; this digital only station, which specialises in "the cutting edge music of today and the iconic and groundbreaking music of the past" returned an audience increase of 11.5% in the same period that Radio 3 lost 15.8%. BBC 6 Music now has an audience only 23% smaller than Radio 3, despite having no FM frequency.

 When Radio 3 has returned poor listening figures in the past the official BBC reaction, via their press office, has been to use semantic dexterity to turn bad news into good news. But seasoned BBC watchers have noted that, in contrast to the network controller's airy dismissal of his station's appalling performance, the latest BBC media centre statement tersely spells out that Radio 3 is a bust. It seems the senior BBC management is finally running out of patience with Roger Wright’s flawed strategy, so there may be hope yet.

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