Thursday, August 23, 2012

Life on the road is liberty

"One right to which few intellectuals care to lay claim is the right to wander, the right to vagrancy. And yet vagrancy is emancipation, and life on the road is liberty: one day bravely to throw off the shackles with which modern life and the weakness of our heart encumber us, in a pretence of liberty; to arm oneself with the symbolic staff and bundle and run away".
Those are the opening lines from the collection of Isabelle Eberdardt's writing titled Prisoner of Dunes, and it is now time to arm myself with the symbolic staff and bundle and run away from blogging for a while and leave you with a different perspective. That is Nabil Othmani (right foreground) and Steve Shehan (left background) in the header photo, and my music to run away by is their recent album Awalin. Nabil Othmani was born in Djanet in the Algerian Sahara and there is a chilling convergence of paths at this point. His father was the great Tuareg oud player and singer Baly Othmani whose body was found in the river running through Djanet in 1995. Isabelle Eberhardt bravely threw off the shackles of modern life and chose to wander, only to drown in the river running through the Algerian Saharan town of Ain Sefra in 1904. Adieu.

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Profession heal thyself


For some time On An Overgrown Path has been asking Are classical music journalists above criticism? Now it is reported elsewhere that the chief music critic of a UK broadsheet has left following allegations of conflict of interest. Fellow critics are defending him. Which is understandable; because if this becomes a trend, there will soon be a lot more vacancies.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

We cannot turn our backs on the past

When, in 1951, Henri Dutilleux presented his vibrantly diatonic First Symphony, Boulez greeted him by turning his back.
That is Alex Ross writing in The Rest is Noise and Dutilleux's vibrantly diatonic Symphony is one of the works in a new five CD overview of his music. There is much notable music in the oeuvre of this underrated composer, and also a sub-text that is relevant to the challenges currently facing classical music. Dutilleux (b. 1916) reflects his fascination with time and memory in his compositions, and uses involuntary memory to link past, present and future. His music is certainly not retrogressive. But its message is that, despite Boulez, we cannot turn our backs on the past; a very relevant sentiment as classical music struggles with denying the past and reinventing itself as a child of the digital age.

Virgin Classics' Dutilleux box also includes his Second Symphony, the Cello Concerto composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, the Violin Concerto commissioned by Isaac Stern, and a stunning performance by the Belcea Quartet of Ainsi la Nuit - the latter work obviates back turning as its influences include Webern's Six Bagatelles and Berg’s Lyric Suite, as well as Gregorian chant. I paid just £18.99 for the set at classical independent Prelude Records; yes, it is cheaper elsewhere but I am happy to spend my money in a store where al-Kindī-style good vibrations mean music buying is still a pleasure. Dutilleux is one of several French composers who are worth a detour: others include André Jolivet, who was a friend of Dutilleux, and Maurice Ohama.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Research identifies classical music’s unique selling point

Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system… These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system... Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.
Those extracts are from a paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Complex science needs to be treated with respect and caution, but the findings do resonate with recent paths about the links between classical music and hallucinogens, kinetic art (thanks go to Norman Perryman for the heads up), therapy, and ecstatic traditions such as Sufism. They also suggest exploitable similarities between music and tangible reward systems such as sex and gourmet food, and more importantly to opportunities for the medical application of music – in particular as a palliative for Parkinson’s disease, because a loss of dopamine-secreting neurons causes the disease. If I was still responsible for music promotion I would forget the over-exploited entertainment factor, and instead work at communicating classical music’s unique selling point, the feel good factor.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Beware of the circle game


Two immensely satisfying musical experiences in eight days: Jing Zhao playing Bach’s Cello Suites in Norwich, and the Wu Quartet playing Britten, Peteris Vasks and Schubert in Cratfield. Musicianship of the highest order links both concerts, but so do several other attributes. All the artists were young players not yet sucked onto the celebrity treadmill. Both venues were small sacred/spiritual spaces - the Swedenborgian Chapel in Norwich and St Mary’s Church, Cratfield - with intimate and involving acoustics. And both concerts were presented by non-professional promoters. By contrast mainstream classical music remains fixated on the virtuous circle of big agent, big artist, big venue, and big audience. All of which reminds me of the Sufi fable The Conference of the Birds. Here is the irreplaceable Bernard Levin’s précis of the fable from his book Conducted Tour:
The birds go to seek their mysterious king, the Simorg. Their journey is beset by terrible hardship, amid which some die, some desert, some turn back, some lose heart. When the survivors reach their goal, it is to learn the world’s most profound and vital truth. They are told that they have carried the Simorg with them all the time, and they realise that the treasures which we believe lies across cruel wastes, boundless oceans, towering mountains and dreadful valleys really lies within our own hearts.
I must hasten to point out that the header image does not portray either of the concert venues! It was taken by me in 2007 in another intimate and involving performance space, the Chapelle St Alexis, Malaucène, France, and the murals are the work of Michael Bastow. Photo is (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). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

No reasonable offer refused


Many thanks go to my American readers for taking BBC director general Mark Thompson off our hands. Now can we also interest you in Roger Wright, Petroc Trelawny, Rob Cowan, Katie Derham and Norman Lebrecht?

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The whole joy is in the journey

“The joy of life is the joy of the journey. If one could close one’s eyes and be put immediately on the top of the Himalayas, one would not enjoy it as much as the one who climbs and goes from one peak to another, and sees the different scenery and meets different people on the way. The whole joy is in the journey.”
That is Inayat Khan quoted by his biographer Elisabeth de Jong-Keesing. Today’s unimaginative concert programming whisks us from peak to peak, which means we miss the opportunity to meet different people and scenery on the way. One such missed opportunity is the Estonian symphonist Eduard Tubin, the 30th anniversary of whose death will fall on November 17th. Header image show one of my LPs from BIS’ pioneering 1980s cycle of the Tubin symphonies which, thankfully, has been transferred to CD. Is contemporary concert programming too monochrome and is that one of the reasons why classical music is failing to attract a wider audience?

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Back to the Bach of 1900


In a preface to the original 1974 LP release of his recordings of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Sir Adrian Boult expressed the hope that they would “take our audience back to the Bach of 1900, to the smooth and solid expression given by a far larger orchestra than Bach could ever contemplate, and those who prefer the delicate staccato interpretations of the sixties will have no difficulty in finding many excellent records in this vein”. However, despite the recordings being made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, they are not big band Bach in every respect; recorders are used in the First and Fourth Concertos and a harpsichord provides the continuo throughout, although I recall being told by session producer Christopher Bishop that the latter choice at least was his, rather than Sir Adrian’s. This still deliciously inauthentic Bach has been out of the CD catalogue for far too long, but now returns in the “don’t think, just buy” eleven CD EMI box seen above. Currently retailing for £21.42 on Amazon, it also includes priceless recordings of the Brahms Symphonies and Schubert’s Great C major. Sir Adrian’s Bach is just more evidence that authentic performances are a silly convention.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Yin and Yang are changing very quickly

Our world is at a very interesting age. In the West, people are studying yoga, karate, meditation - Eastern things. In the East people are studying science, business, Western art and philosophy - Western things. This is now the time when Yin and Yang are changing very quickly. So if you are holding on to any idea - of what is Eastern, what is Western, how things are, how things ought to be - holding any idea, any opinion at all, then you will have a problem; you cannot connect with the world. But, if you lay it all down, all your ideas, all opinions, then the truth is right in front of your eyes...
Zen Master Seung Sahn of Providence Zen Center writes in the introduction to A Still Forest Pool, a compilation of the teachings of the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition meditation master Achaan Chah. My soundtrack is Sabîl from Palestinian oud player Ahmad Al Khatib and the Israeli Druze percussionist Youssef Hbeisch, a CD from the record label with a secret life that I found recently in FNAC in Montpelier. The Druze are a minority within Israel and consider their faith to be a new interpretation of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More from the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition in The sound is just following its own nature.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Talk about immortal masterpieces is rather ridiculous


“It's been many years since I dipped my ears in that raging ocean....” confesses Alex Ross in a recent email about the music of Kaikhosru Sorabji, and what an eloquent description “raging ocean” is of that composer's unique soundworld. Kaikhosru Sorabji, seen above, was born on August 14th, 1892 in Chingford, Essex. But it is unlikely, even in an age obsessed with composer anniversaries, that the 120th anniversary of his birth this week will receive much attention. Sorabji’s output included six piano concertos, three organ symphonies and six symphonies for solo piano. But he remains a marginal figure – his music has never been performed at the Proms – who attracts just a small cult following. That following, incidentally, includes a young Alex Ross who broadcast the four hour Opus Clavicembalisticum on Harvard’s student radio station WHRB a few months after Sorabji died in October 1988.

Today Sorabji is remembered mainly for his prolixity. This reaches a peak in one work for solo piano that lasts more than eight hours, and two others that break the six hour barrier. He uses six and seven replete staves in some compositions, ten of his piano works fill more than two hundred pages, and his Jami Symphony – which is not his longest orchestral work – sprawls over 830 pages and almost 100 staves. Needless to say such music presents enormous challenges to the performer, and Sorabji famously discouraged unauthorized performances to prevent what he called “obscene travesties”. Kenneth Derus - dedicatee of Sorabji’s Opus secretum – writes that parts of Opus Clavicembalisticum make “the very different hurdles of Boulez and Stockhausen seem very low indeed” and that “Xenakis and Ferneyhough write nearly as many notes, and deploy them far less gratefully, but neither requires that these notes be consistently and exhaustively voiced to have any kind of sensible meaning at all”. All of which is very true, but does make Sorabji’s music sound rather intimidating and inaccessible. Which it is not; the roots of Sorabjji’s music lie not in the avantgardistes – he distanced himself from many contemporary trends - but in Busoni and the late-Romantics. An identifiable influence on the Opus Clavicembalisticum is Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica, while Scriabin, Debussy and Szymanowski have been cited as other inspirations, and, perversely, Sorabji’s circle included the Anglo-Welsh miniaturist composer Philip Warlock.

An intensely private man, Sorabji kept his private life and his homosexuality from the public eye. The child of a Parsi father from Bombay and an English mother, he was given the names Leon Dudley Sorabji at birth. Parsis are followers of the prophet Zarathustra, and Sorabji underwent a late baptism and a change of forename to mark his embrace of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. His acceptance of a mystical faith that was both a progenitor of the three great monotheistic religions and a precursor of Christian heretics including the Gnosticisms and Cathars is reflected in the metaphysical element in his compositions. These include a Tāntrik Symphony (No 1) for piano with seven movements named after the bodily centres of Tantric and Shaktic yoga, a Piano Sonata (No 5 Opus archimagicum) inspired by the Tarot, and the Benedizione di San Francesco d'Assisi, a setting for voice and organ of a Catholic benediction. Sorabji's Parsi ancestry and interest in mysticism was also reflected in his enthusiasm for the Persian Sufi poets including Jalaluddin Rūmī - this predated by some years Rūmī's popularity in the West.

In addition to his roles as prolific composer and pianist, Sorabji was also a influential and sometimes heretical music critic. He was one of the first critics to review commercial recordings on shellac 78s, he pre-empted Glenn Gould by half a century with his view that recordings would eventually make live performances redundant, and thirty years before Conlon Nancarrow he explored composing for the player piano. Sorabji’s writings were published in two books of essays, Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician and Around Music. Writing in the latter he declared:

“Surely talk about ‘immortal masterpieces’, when it is considered that the oldest masterpieces within the average music-lover’s ken are scarcely over a couple of centuries old, is rather ridiculous when compared with the achievement of sculpture or architecture, which persists in full vitality and cogency of appeal over millennia?’
Today immortal masterpieces are the currency of classical music. But, just as there is much overlooked music that is neither easy nor difficult, so there is much neglected music that is neither a minor-piece (equivalent to Michelin's one star rating) nor a masterpiece (three stars), but which merits a two star rating - meaning “excellent, worth a detour”. Kaikhosru Sorabji’s music is certainly worth a detour, and hopefully this short appreciation will encourage readers to explore his raging ocean of sound as an alternative to our quotidian diet of immortal masterpieces.

* There is no easy introduction to Sorabji’s music, but Geoffrey Douglas Madge’s recording for BIS of the Opus Clavicembalisticum is a good starting point. Remastered from a 1983 concert performance in Chicago it is available as 5 CD set selling for the price of three (£38.69), or a bargain (£14.98) MP3 download, for which you get 3 hours 56 minutes of music. The header image is taken from the CD sleeve and the dedication reads “For Geofrey - Kaikhosru Sorabji”.

** Kyle Gann has written about the four and a half hour long Jami Symphony and linked to a Midi realisation; elsewhere Kyle has ten hours of Sorabji’s music available as downloads plus videos.

*** More information and a catalogue of works at the Sorabji Archive and at the Sorabji Resource Site, and a useful overview of recordings of Sorabji's music here.


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V1.1 14/09 with amendements to Tantrik Symphony and book title.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Elgar up close and personal


For a topical example of the curse of close-miking listen to the prominent soloists in Friday's BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the moving Proms performance of The Apostles given by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. Microphones may be visible in the 1975 session photo above, but their more distant placement avoided the artificial and fatiguing sound that characterises more modern productions. Elgar up close and personal or Elgar laid-back and natural? - I know which I prefer. The photo shows EMI's Kingsway Hall sessions with Sir Adrian Boult, the New Philharmonia Orchestra and London Philharmonic Choir for The Dream of Gerontius. Staying with matters spatial, those 1975 Gerontius sessions were captured in both stereo and quadraphonic sound, and my LPs are encoded in the EMI/CBS stereo compatible SQ format. Assuming the four channel master still exists in the EMI vaults, there is an opportunity for an enterprising label to sub-license and issue it using one of the new generation multi-channel formats such as SACD. Now Gerontius - that is a sublime masterpiece.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

We are by nature analogue beings

We are by nature analogue (def. "a continuous spectrum of values") beings, consisting of fluid organic substances. This is why my kinetic colours feel good in a visceral way and access our emotions; in contrast to digital images, synthesized from separate pixels. Those bits of separate information don't touch us emotionally, especially when viewed in digital projection. Which is why I bucked the trend, "reverting" to analogue overhead projectors with their continuous flow of light-colour. It's ironic that a spectator/audience will vaguely feel the difference without understanding why (cf. your observations on CDs).

In a different field, tourists will snap up art museum postcards with colours that are horribly wrong, without even noticing the difference to what they just saw in real space and with personal visual experience. The desperate longing for a souvenir, "in search of a lost emotion". For the same reason, people are always urging me to make commercial prints of my kinetic images, or at least DVDs, without realising that the "emotional involvement" in real time and space would be lacking, as would the awareness that you are witness to a creative act in real time.

Your references to Powick "Asylum", Elgar and LSD took me back. One of my first attempts at oil painting, as a first-year Birmingham art student in 1950, was of the view of the Asylum from Powick bridge. It had a strange fascination for me, as we biked a lot between Worcester and Malvern. Bizarre that, when teaching in Switzerland in the seventies, I lived just across the valley from "high priest" of LSD Timothy Leary. Just imagine how Elgar could be hyped up with psychedelia! Actually, I'm performing to Enigma Variations with the Bergen Phil. on September 6th., but my kinetic abstracts are a relatively soft drug. Although with Rotterdam Phil. last March, grown men were sobbing to the flow of my Nimrod.
That email was received from kinetic artist Norman Perryman in response to Time for music to awaken the inner analogue. Paths converge here with Norman's opening assertion that "We are by nature analogue beings, consisting of fluid organic substances" resonating strongly with Music exists only in constant flow and flux.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

In search of the lost emotion


This 1972 Decca LP of the monks of L’Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes was the first recording of Gregorian chant that I bought, and in the eight years I have been blogging Gregorian chant has featured here many times, particularly as sung by the Benedictine community of Saint-Madeleine du Barroux. In 1972 the monks at Solesmes were speaking to the inner analogue with their LPs, but now their brothers at Le Barroux are speaking to the outer digital by streaming their Divine Offices online, complete with iPhone app for those seeking mobile spirituality.

Le Barroux’s iPhone app is one of the more dramatic transgressions of set and setting, but it is symptomatic of a widespread problem. There is now, thankfully, a general understanding of how eco-systems mean that pollution in a stream can destroy life in a faraway ocean. But there is virtually no understanding of the workings of esoteric systems (eso-systems), as evidenced by the fallacy that a transcendental experience in a Provencal monastery can be shared by an iPhone user in New York.

Eso-systems are as relevant to classical music as they are to Gregorian chant. Music is a complex, interlinked and poorly understood eso-system that links composer via performer to listener. Of course classical music must change. But deploying developments such as mobile technologies in isolation and without regard for their overall impact is part of the problem, not the solution. Classical music’s declining audience engagement is due more to a failure to take a holistic viewpoint than to changing demographics or musical tastes, as the results of research by psychologist Dr Adrian North explain:

“….the degree of accessibility and choice has arguably led to a rather passive attitude towards music heard in everyday life: The present results indicate that music was rarely the focus of participants' concerns and was instead something that seemed to be taken rather for granted, a product that was to be consumed during the achievement of other goals. In short, our relationship to music in everyday life may well be complex and sophisticated, but it is not necessarily characterised by deep emotional investment.”
Classical music depends on emotional involvement. Yet research shows that increased accessibility and choice results in decreased emotional involvement. Could the message be any clearer?

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Elgar takes a trip


This Friday (August 10) Mark Elder and the Hallé bring Elgar’s choral masterpiece The Apostles to the BBC Proms. Mark Elder is a notable Elgar interpreter, and encounters with the transcendental and numinous are among the sensations triggered by a great performance of The Apostles. But they are also sensations associated with a very different kind of experience – an LSD trip. And surprisingly there are links between Elgar, The Apostles and LSD.


Elgar made the first sketches for The Apostles in the the early 1880s when he was band instructor at Powick Hospital. This was a psychiatric facility originally called Powick Lunatic Asylum which stood in the shadow of the composer's beloved Malvern Hills - the hospital is seen in the aerial view above. Music therapy was pioneered at Powick and the visionary hospital board formed an unconventional band of strings, wind, strings, brass and piano from the institution’s staff . The young Elgar’s responsibilities included conducting, arranging and composing, and he taught himself the bassoon to augment the available musical forces.


Elgar worked at Powick from 1879 until 1884 and his little known compositions for wind quintet date from this period. Above is my 1978 LP set of Elgar’s wind music played by the Athena Ensemble. The composer turned bassoonist is seen in the centre of the back row in the photo below, with him are three friends and his brother Frank (front right) who played wind quintets together. The connection between music and healing continued at Powick Hospital long after Elgar moved on to greater things, and until the 1940s all male nursing were required to be proficient on a musical instrument. Then, at the beginning of the next decade, a new consultant psychiatrist was appointed to the hospital, and his arrival was the start of a literally mind-blowing period in Powick’s history.


Dr Ronald (Ronnie) Sandison (1916-2010) trained as a psychiatrist before his involvement with Freudian and Jungian analysis led to a career in psychotherapy. Freud had speculated in 1938 that chemical substances had a role to play in therapy, and in 1952 – a year after taking up his post at Powick – Sandison visited the Sandoz laboratories in Basel, Switzerland where he met the creator of LSD, Dr Albert Hoffman. When Sandison visited Sandoz for a second time a few months later he was given a box of LSD ampoules, and unknowingly became the first person to bring the drug into Britain. On his return Dr Sandison began introducing LSD into the psychotherapeutic regime at Powick, and Sandoz continued to provide the drug free of charge for the twelve years that the psychiatrist practised at the hospital. Ronnie Sandison's research included one personal LSD trip taken in a carefully controlled set and setting, and several of his registrars also took the drug. A paper published by Sandison in 1954 was a pioneering study of the medical use of LSD which concluded that therapy using the drug had clinical potential. Such was the support for his research that funding was quickly made available in 1956 for a specialised LSD to be built at Powick, this allowed up to five drug therapy sessions to take place at the same time. The new LSD unit can be seen in the photo from 1955 below with the original hospital buildings in the background.


The music thread that stretches back to Elgar continued in the new LSD unit, and each of the treatment rooms was fitted with a record player. Based on advice from the American psychologist and pioneer of LSD therapy Betty Eisner (1915-2004), patients undergoing psychotherapy were supplied with the soundtrack of their choice from the unit’s large record collection. Sadly there are no accounts of patients tripping to The Apostles and it seems that folk music was the favourite hallucinogenic accompaniment. The photo below from 1960 shows Dr Sandison in the LSD unit with nursing staff.


Dr Ronnie Sandison moved to another hospital in 1965 and ended his work with LSD, although after his departure the drug continued to be used at Powick. But in late-1965 adverse press coverage forced Sandoz to stop production of LSD, and this decision coupled with increasing demonization of the drug soon ended its clinical use. Records show that 683 patients were treated with LSD in 13,785 separate sessions at Powick before the program was discontinued. But a belated shadow was cast over the pioneering psychotherapy programme three decades later when a class action was brought against the British medical authorities by patients claiming to have suffered psychiatric damage as a result of LSD treatment in the 1950s and 60s. This resulted in out of court settlements to forty-three patients who had received the pioneering treatment at several hospitals.


Elgar’s links with LSD may be tenuous, but it is not his only connection with drugs and astral travel. The composer was a close friend of the author Algernon Blackwood - the two are seen together in the photo above - and in 1915 he composed the incidental music for Blackwood’s play The Starlight Express. Algernon Blackwood was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a qabalistic order practising astrology, tarot divination, geomancy, magic, astral travel, with a membership including the notorious drug user Aleister Crowley. Given Elgar's links with hallucinogens the typography on the Wind Quintet box above and the artwork for Tod Handley’s classic recording of The Starlight Express below are wonderfully appropriate. More on this path in Elgar and the occult.


* Sources for this post include Andy Robert’s meticulously researched and highly recommended Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. My personal soundtrack has been Sir Adrian Boult's now deleted - as is Tod's Starlight Express - 1974 account of The Apostles. After listening to Sir Adrian's Apostles repeatedly over the last few days I can only ask who needs LSD?

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Time for classical music to awaken the inner analogue?


Benjamin Britten's 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener is bound together together by the glue of sound. Such was the importance of sound to Britten that he built one of the world's acoustically finest concert halls and condemned the loudspeaker as the principal enemy of music. Yet today the glue of sound has become increasingly fissile as mobile and digital technologies heap sonic compromise on sonic compromise. But thankfully the art of great recorded sound is not quite dead, as is proved by a new CD from Nimbus Alliance titled The Art of Transcription*. The quality of the music - Dmitry Sitkovetsky's transcriptions for string trio of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Sinfonias - and the quality of the performances - by Yuri Zhislin, Luigi Piovano and Sitkovetsky himself - are both outstanding. But equally outstanding is the quality of the sound in a recording produced by former EMI staffer John Fraser and engineered by Philip Hobbs at Potton Hall here in East Anglia. All too often today the demands of concert recordings and simultaneous video recording force the production team to place the microphones close to the performers, which robs the sound of vital spacial information and atmosphere. But John Fraser and Philip Hobbs wisely avoid the curse of close-miking, and the result is sound that transports the listener from the constrained set and setting of domestic listening to a seat in the converted timber-framed barn at Potton Hall.

The Art of Transcription is digital recording at its very best, and digital technology has always been seen as an opportunity, not a problem, for classical music. But is that assumption true? In fact it can be argued that digital sound is contributing to the disconnect between classical music and young audiences. Hazrat Inayat Khan taught how all life-giving energies - including music - are no more than vibrations. Yet digital recordings deconstruct and reconstruct those fragile vibrations with scant regard for their integrity. Yes, it is a miracle that technology can perform the sonic equivalent of turning pigs into sausages, and then turning the sausages back into pigs. But is it surprising that the resulting digital porkers don't quite sound like the real thing?** Those searching for new audiences would do well to study Glenn Gould's all-analogue 1955 Goldberg Variations. It sold more than forty thousand copies in its first four years in the catalogue and more than one hundred thousand during Gould's lifetime - all without the aid of iPods and social media. Whereas today a digital album is a best seller if it shifts less than a quarter of that volume across both disc and MP3 formats. Vinyl is making a big comeback with young rock fans. Time for classical music to awaken the inner analogue?



* It is a measure of the power of Dmitry Sitkovetsky's Goldberg disc, seen above, that it survives a negative al-Kindī effect. How many impulse buyers will reach home before realising they have not bought the Planets or Also sprach Zarathustra? Which is why I opted for an alternative header image.

** Challenges to the sonic veracity of digital recordings should not be dismissed as fuzzy science. The digital recording and reproduction process hinges around the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem which states that perfect reconstruction of a signal is possible when the sampling frequency is greater than twice the maximum frequency of the sampled signal. As the upper limit of human hearing is approximately 20 kHZ the sampling rate for CD and MP3 digital encoding/decoding was fixed at 44.1 kHz. Yet even an untrained listener can hear the difference in an A/B comparison between a CD sampled at 44.1 kHz and a studio master sampled at 192 kHz. If the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem is correct, 44.1 kHz sampling will have perfectly reconstructed the original signal. Yet listening tests show conclusively that the higher sampling rate improves on "perfection". Or, in simple language, what we hear actually hear contradicts the theorem that digital recording technology is built on. When it is understood that there is no sampling in analogue recordings - which makes the effective sampling rate infinite - the sonic appeal of vinyl becomes less urban myth and more fact. Let the comments begin...

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

A traveller’s tale


In the 1970s I had the misfortune to be on a passenger jet that made an emergency landing. It was a British Airways flight from Berlin to Heathrow, and in those Cold War days international flights in and out of West Berlin had to make an intermediate stop at an airport in West Germany. My flight stopped at Bremen and shortly after taking off from there the BAC 1-11 jet suffered a major power failure that forced it to make an emergency landing.

This incident happened in the days when aircraft seat spacing was considerably greater, when turnaround times were considerably longer, when passengers were not encouraged to cram as much carry-on baggage into the cabin as possible, and when cabin crew was a somewhat better paid profession. All the BA crew behaved in exemplary fashion and no one was physically hurt. But the experience was frightening, not only because of the very real danger but also because one of the passengers, quite understandably, had a panic attack during the emergency landing.

Budget airlines dominate the market today and their profit margins depend on squeezing as many people and bags as possible into a very small space – the plane cabin – and squeezing as much activity as possible – loading, unloading and refuelling – into a very short time. I use budget airlines regularly and in general have found, contrary to received wisdom, they deliver exactly what they promise - no-frills low cost travel. But whenever I fasten my seatbelt in a crowded cabin with carry-on bags stuffed into every available space, I wonder what would happen in an emergency evacuation.

Before I go any further and before the comments roll in, let me say I have every sympathy with professional musicians whose livelihood is threatened by restrictions on taking fragile and valuable instruments into plane cabins. It is a problem that must be solved, but the solution is not to plead that musicians are a special case and should be exempt from safety regulations. Seat belts are designed to restrain humans, not cellos. Which means in an emergency a cello becomes a projectile that at the best may block an emergency exit, and at the worst may kill someone. Based on what happened on that Berlin flight, I question whether a musician travelling with an irreplaceable instrument as oversize hand baggage would automatically abandon it in an emergency as required by safety procedures. There certainly would be a very strong temptation to try to escape from the cabin clutching the precious instrument and putting lives at risk as a result. And we just have to accept that storage is no longer available in plane cabins for oversized baggage - one airline even wants to remove toilets in an attempt to cram more people and bags into the cabin.

Facebook petitions and stories demonising airlines will not solve the problem of transporting musical instruments. When it comes to protecting human life there are no exceptions – not even classical music. Musician’s livelihoods are under threat so it goes without saying that a solution must be found. But the search needs more light and less heat.

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

What is this breath that is talked about so often?


Heard what was going on around him - not a system but an attitude - the rhythm of breathing - sounds as living objects - the rediscovery of bodily rhythms - musicians are actors in an abstract drama - bridging the gap between score and audience = Donald Runnicles (above) and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performing Bruckner's Eighth Symphony at last night's Prom
'It is we who need to know Breath is Life. What is this breath that is talked about so often? Actually it is not so difficult to understand when we come to realise that on planet Earth we have just one thing in common and that is the element of air. We sit in a room attending a lecture or concert; we are all sharing the same air. We may not consider this important, and yet, the moment we enter a world of compassion, knowing that the musicians and the conductor in the concert, or he who is giving the lecture, are all sharing the same air with us, something can happen within to help bring about real change' - Reshad Feild
Also on Facebook and Twitter. Quote is from Reshad Feild's Breathing Alive: A Guide to Conscious Living. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, August 03, 2012

The problem is MP3 files cannot look at you menacingly

Another example of al-Kindī is that you can absorb some of the contents of books without reading them, by irradiation, if you are surrounded by many of them.
David Derrick added that comment to How sleeve artwork changes the sound of CDs. Harmless pseudoscience... Or is it? Here is Nassim Taleb writing in The Black Swan:
A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market will allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.
The same theory applies to CDs. But the problem is MP3 files cannot look at you menacingly.

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

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Set and setting


Set and setting, the mind set prior to taking LSD and the physical setting in which the experience takes place, seem to be the defining factors in how people interpret the LSD experience.
That extract is from Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. Hallucinogenics and classical music may differ radically in social acceptance, but the ultimate aim of both is to transport the user to a better place. Yet, although classical music is fazed by its inability to connect with new audiences, it refuses to consider the possibilities offered by the fuzzy area that lies between science and pseudoscience.

Set and setting is one of those possibilities, and the argument for further exploration is persuasive. Access to classical music has been improving for decades. First it was only available in the concert hall. Then came crude phonographs followed by poor quality radios. Then came the hi-fi boom. And in recent decades accessibility has increase at an exponential rate via iPods and the internet. Yet paradoxically, in parallel with that increasing accessibility the popularity of classical music has declined, and that decline has accelerated as the use of mobile players and the internet has increased. As Benjamin Britten - who knew something about engaging audiences – explained: “If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding”.

Just one example of the importance of set and setting is the enduring popularity of the BBC Proms. This defies rational analysis; the Albert Hall is a cavernous, acoustically poor and physically uncomfortable venue – which should mean an unsatisfactory concert experience. Yet the Proms increase in popularity and continue to attract a young audience that is increasingly absent elsewhere. This is because the set and setting of a Promenade concert define the experience for those in the hall – an experience that is never fully replicated by radio and TV relays of the concerts.

Could set and setting be the defining factor in how listeners interpret classical music? Would a gourmet meal be the same rewarding experience if eaten standing in a crowded subway carriage? Is the portable loudspeaker the enemy of classical music? Hallucinogenics and classical music may have more in common that we think - the header image shows my 1972 LP of Berlioz’s opium inspired Symphonie Fantastique. More on that fuzzy area between science and pseudoscience here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain was borrowed from Norwich library. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Bridging the gap between score and audience


In an online interview Gérard Grisey (1946-1998) explains that spectralism is not a system like serial music, but an attitude that "considers sounds, not as dead objects that you can easily and arbitrarily permutate in all directions, but as being like living objects with a birth, lifetime and death". Grisey goes on to describe how spectralism, of which he was a pioneer, tries "to find a better equation between concept and precept - between the concept of the score and the perception the audience might have of it".

Writing in the New York Times in 2000 Paul Griffiths desribed how Gérard Grisey's "'Les Espaces Acoustiques' was a project of the 1970's and can now be seen to have got right much of what that decade got wrong. Grisey heard what was going on around him -- repetitive music, the rediscovery of bodily rhythms, especially the rhythm of breathing, the fascination with harmonic spectra, the idea that performing musicians are actors in an abstract drama -- and he made it all work". In Les Espaces Acoustiques (Acoustic Spaces) Grisey starts from the spectrographic analysis of the components (fundamental and harmonics) of a trombone E to create a cycle of six acoustic instrumental pieces that takes the listener on a revelatory journey from solo viola to full orchestra.

Heard what was going on around him - not a system but an attitude - the rhythm of breathing - sounds as living objects - the rediscovery of bodily rhythms - musicians are actors in an abstract drama - bridging the gap between score and audience... Today's celebrity fixated classical music has so much to learn.

Les Espaces Acoustiques is available in an excellent recording on the Accord label that emphasises how sounds are "living objects with a birth, lifetime and death". Header photo was taken by me in Nantes, France and shows a mural depicting the history of the city in the style of Diego Rivera that "appeared" overnight in May 2010. The photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.