Friday, September 28, 2012

Enlightenment awaits when classical music becomes classical music

'When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings. There is your self. There you have true practice; you have the practice of a frog. Here is a good example of our practice – when a frog becomes a frog, Zen becomes Zen. When you understand a frog through and through, you attain enlightenment; you are Buddha'.
Those are the words of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, and centenary celebrant John Cage was, of course, a Zen practitioner. My recent post The sound of 4’33” generated a large readership, doubtless helped by images of the stunning Zen garden at Venansault, France. When we came to view the photos taken by my wife at Venansault we found the one above that resonates synchronistically with Shunryu Suzuki’s teaching. For many Zen’s metaphysical obscurantism will be irritating, but the Buddhist tradition does contain much truth. Classical music is not an entertainment format, it is not a digital property, it is not a money spinner, it is not a social media toy, it is not a celebrity vehicle, it is not a mass market product, it is not a replacement for dub step, it is not a refuge for the ethically compromised, it is not a spectator sport, and it is not a higher art form beyond the reach of economic reality. Just as enlightenment awaits when a frog becomes a frog, so another form of enlightenment awaits when classical music becomes no more than classical music. And when that happens and we truly understand classical music through and through, many of its so-called ‘problems’ will be seen in a different light. More on John Cage, Zen and small sentient beings in Cleaning the ears of the musically educated.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is © Mrs Overgrown Path 2012. Quote is from Zen Mind, Beginner's MInd by Shunry Suzuki. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Talkin' 'bout my generation

Two names struck me in this week's announcement of the 2012 BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, a scheme which has the admirable objective of helping “talented artists to reach the next stage of their careers”. I was struck by the name at the top of the list, Irish tenor Robin Tritschler - he is a very talented singer with a growing international profile who is already represented by leading management agency Askonas Holt. And I was struck by the name of the presenter who will front BBC Radio 3 broadcasts of the new generation artists - Clemency Burton-Hill.

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sweat equity investors 1 - Masters of the universe 0

Back in 2008 my posts about funding problems with the EMI group pension fund - which potentially affected my own pension - attracted a lot of interest. Now today’s mail has brought the good news that the trustees have reached agreement with Citigroup to inject £240 million into the pension fund, and, to quote the trustees, “This payment has significantly improved the financial position of the fund”. It would have been more rewarding if the peerless legacy of Boult, Barbirolli, Munrow, Karajan et al could have funded my future CD purchases. But, as the masters of the universe nuked that option, Citigroup’s money will have to do instead. So what has a jellyfish on a beach in western France got to do with the EMI pension fund? Well, Karajan was an EMI artist, and Siegfried Lauterwasser was his court photographer. Lauterwasser’s son Alexander is a graphic artist, and his cymatic images were linked to a jellyfish on the same beach in a 2009 post. Understand now why it is called On An Overgrown Path?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is © On An Overgrown Path 2012. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, September 24, 2012

One foot in the past and one in the future

With intense nostalgia I read your blogpost. Dear Ravi. I attach one of my paintings of him in his prime. I was attempting to capture an elusive shimmering masterpiece. In this East meets West period, Yehudi was attempting something similar. He was there spiritually and of course technically he could do anything, but it was hopeless - somewhere too far down in his ancestral line. "I feel like a little dog" he once told me, "Ravi does something and I just follow him". He acquired this oil, one of several versions and many sketches I made of them during rehearsals at the Gstaad/Saanen Mehuhin Festival. One day they forgot a carpet, so I was dispatched up the hill to Yehudi's chalet to bundle the carpet (in my painting) into my Volkswagen so they could sit down. It was so heavy, I felt it was interwoven with layers and of complex rhythms. Sigh! Golden years.... Your piece makes me want to dig back into those musical treasures and bathe in them again. The strictly Protestant church governors of the Saanen were used to concerts with "straight Bach and sides" (Sorry :). It stretched their patience to make the audience sit and wait so long, during all this tuning of sitars or trying things out, or whatever these incense-burning guys were doing, But after 3/4 of an hour or so most were dosing off or in trance, without realizing that the "guys" were already playing part of their programme. "Hey, when did they start?!" Good question.
Classical music can learn a lot from how kinetic artist Norman Perryman has one foot in the past and one in the future. His account of Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin’s Indian summer arrived by email the same day that he posted on his own blog an account of performing Debussy, Scriabin, Murail and Benjamin with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and VJ Niek Das in Amsterdam. Writing of his appearance at “the coolest club in town” Norman reports how "I’ve never seen hundreds of young people so happy after listening/watching, entranced with classical music. Don’t tell me there isn’t a future audience for the classics – and we’re talking about modern classics too!" The golden years of the incense-burning guys may be in the past. But has classical music finally found its future contact high in kinetic performances?

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

Friday, September 21, 2012

The sound of 4'33"

'I notice the kind of background sound which I refer to as the sound of silence, a resonating, vibratory sound. Is it a sound? Whatever it is - "sound" isn't quite accurate - I begin to notice a high-pitched kind of vibration that is always present. Once you recognise this point - at which one is fully open, receptive; when you recognize this sound of silence your thinking process stops - you can rest in this stream. It's like a stream. It isn't like ordinary sound that rises and ceases or begins and ends. The sound of the bell has a beginning and ending, and so does the sound of birds, the sound of my voice. But behind that, behind all other sounds, is this sound of silence. It's not that we create it or that it comes and goes - in my exploraration of this it's always present, it's just there whether I notice it or not. So once I notice it - and it sustains itself, I don't have to create it - then it's just present, pure presence. '
From The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho. And that mention of resonating vibratory sounds leads to a different Buddhist tradition - Eliane Radigue's electronic masterpiece Trilogie de la Mort inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.


All photos taken at Les Jardins du Loriot, Venansault, France and (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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In search of Mount Analogue


Social media speaks in the binary vocabulary of 'like' and 'dislike' to the total exclusion of the myriad nuanced positions between these two extremes. In his forgotten memoir Spring Street Summer Christopher Hudson describes a teacher of the first binary generation at Michigan State University in the 1980s lamenting that "'All his students cared about was getting grades that would look good on their CVs. They had no time for ambiguity or sublety, no time for doubt". Thirty years earlier in his prescient masterwork Mount Analogue, French writer René Daumal had portrayed an imaginary search for "A way that unites Heaven and Earth, which must exist, otherwise our situation would be without hope". As yet the binary generation has failed to discover Mount Analogue, and the result is a digital culture that hates ambiguity.

Graphic shows the 1968 City Lights edition of Mount Analogue. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Musical ideals are insensitive

'Can you imagine not having any personality? Just nothing really - it sounds like you're almost dead! Every personal opinion, every personal feeling, we would need to reject. But that's not it. It's not an annihilation of self. It's seeing that the self we tend to cling to is our own creation. We create ourselves. And so with awareness we're beginning to see that. We're beginning to notice how I create myself as a person. Just out of habit, out of not awakening, out of being caught up in thinking habit, emotional habits, and identities that I never notice yet alone question'.
Recently I have been spending time with Wagner as interpreted by Sir Adrian Boult and Glenn Gould, and also - readers cannot have failed to notice - with Ajahn Sumedho's teachings. Sir Adrian's approach to Wagner, as captured in the invaluable EMI reissue of his orchestral excerpts, is what Thai Buddhists term anattā - devoid of self. Glenn Gould's transcriptions of the same music for piano are the total opposite and replete with personal opinions and personal feelings. Ajahn Sumedho teaches that we should practice anattā, or not-self. But in a Koan-like conundrum, rejecting Gould's subjective interpretation in favour of Boult's objectivity is itself a personal opinion. Which means musically both approaches are equally valid and indispensable - Boult's Wagner is fresh and clear like the wind-cleansed skies here in western France, while Gould's is a luxuriant soak in the sun-warmed sea.

Applying Buddhist teachings to Wagner's music is not entirely fanciful. There are several tentative connections between the wizard of Bayreuth and Prince Siddhartha, most notably the uncompleted opera Die Sieger. The sketches for the libretto - no music was composed apparently - suggest Wagner based it on Eugène Burnouf's 1844 Introduction to the History of Buddhism, and the speculative background to the opera inspired Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. Glenn Gould, of course, had ambitions to conduct Wagner, and for one of his final recordings took the baton for the Siegfried Idyll; this was not intended for commercial release, but was issued, nevertheless, by CBS posthumously. It must be the most slowest ever interpretation: the timing of 24" 29" compares with Boult's 16' 19". For many Gould's will not be the ideal Siegfried Idyll. But as Ajahn Sumedho reminds us: "Ideals are insensitive. When you are idealistic you are attached t
something that is beautiful but doesn't have any feelings'.

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

Saturday, September 15, 2012

An elusive shimmering masterpiece, transcending musical definition

'Hovering up above the parched plains of Andrah Pradesh, the bloody sun sat like a mothership bearing galactic emperors to an appointment at the end of the world. The sudden, awesome beauty of this spectacle felt like a punch to the heart. We hurtled through the primeval landscape, which was palely illuminated by an alien star fat and heavy with burning blood. I felt like the first man, or the last one. Slipping on headphones, I started listening to Ravi-Shankar's Shanti-Dhwami where I'd left off after buying it the day before. Dedicated to Indira Gandhi - its sole shortcoming - it is a shimmering masterpiece, transcending musical definition.'
That is Paul William Roberts writing in his personal homage to India Empire of the Sun - long out of print but well worth searching out. Mystic Sai Baba, Mother Teresa, George Harrison, a millionaire drug dealer, and the founder of India's first pornographic magazine are among those who appear in the book, which is based on Roberts' residence and travels in India in the 1970s and 1990s. There may be a licensing opportunity lurking here as my research can find no Western release of Shanti-Dhwami - it was first issued in India on a Deccan records cassette in 1985. Paul William Roberts' quote refers to the 1990s, so presumably he was listening via the now forgotten primeval technology of cassette and Walkman. Without a copy of Shanti-Dhwami to hand my soundtrack and header image is another shimmering Shankar masterpiece dedicated to a very different Gandi. His Raga Mohans Kauns: Homage to Mahatma Gandi was composed shortly after the assasination of the peace-loving father of the Indian nation in 1948. I think I am right in saying the disc above, which was released in Deutsche Grammophon's Edge Music series in 2004, is its only release in CD format. More transcending musical definition from Ravi Shankar together with George Harrison here.

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

This imperfect world is our own creation

Decca's latest attempt to boost its flagging fortunes by once again exploiting the 'god rock' genre was the subject of a commendably critical piece in yesterday's Independent by Jessica Duchen. Voice from Assisi is a new album from Alessandro Brustenghi, a Franciscan friar from Assisi, and Jessica's concerns parallel those expressed by me in an earlier post about another of Decca's 'god rock' projects - their 2010 album with the nuns of L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux. But it is not just concerns about the cynically exploitative nature of this project that need to be raised. What also needs highlighting is the breathtaking lack of creativity, vision and integrity exhibited - with a few notable exceptions - by those who now run our record companies, classical radio stations and other major arts organisations. Every day we hear complaints about falling CD sales, cuts in funding, shrinking audiences, insolvent orchestras and lack of recognition for classical music. Instead of complaining, the great and good of classical music should reflect on these words from Lama Anagarika Govinda - 'It is our own karma that we live in this "imperfect" world which in the ultimate sense is our own creation'.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012.. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rachmaninov was out of his skull

'Viking John, the best-looking student on campus, was now sleeping on a mattresss on the floor of my room. He'd bought his record collection with him.
'What about some Rachmaninov?' he suggested while I was flipping through my thin stack of albums, wondering what to put on next.
'I'm not big on classical music,' I replied and went on looking.
'No, I think you'll like this, his second piano concerto.' he took the album out of its sleeve and passed it to me. 'This guy's a real freak'.
I put the record on the turntable, lit the joint of Afghani I'd just rolled and sat back. John was right, Rachmaninov was out of his skull. The music was passionate, almost demented in its intensity. With eyes closed, I felt I was in a coach, rocking throught the snowy Russian landscape, wrapped in some vast Slavic tragedy.'
That vignette of university life in 1968 comes from Leaf Fielding's recently published memoir To Live Outside the Law. Fielding is in the centre of the photo above taken in Reading Wholefoods - a business he founded - a year before his 1976 arrest and imprisonment for distributing LSD. Reaching new, young and hip audiences is top of classical music's agenda, so it is worth pondering on how much more persuasive 'Rachmaninov was out of his skull' is than the 'Leaf Fielding is listening to Rachmaninov on Spotify' messages that are now the currency of Facebook. Chemical stimulants are most definitely optional; but 'hot' tools such as Norman Perryman's kinetic art can engage classical music neophytes far more persuasively than the 'cold' tool of social media. In the pursuit of trivia it is worth noting that Leaf Fielding was at Reading University, as I was around the same time. Rather more distinguished members of the University in less turbulent times included explorers of music's mystic realms Gustav Holst and Edmund Rubbra.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo via Guardian. 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

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Impermanence and the Land of Hope and Glory

'The British have a long history of cultural arrogance. Going out to save or civilise the rest of the world, to convert them to Christianity, correct them, free them from their Barbarian ways, is all cultural arrogance. It is no longer politically correct to think like this, which is good. But to get beyond attachments to ideals of democracy and equality and freedom as the Western conditioned mind conceives them, is through awareness. Just recognise this stillpoint, a centered, reflective attention to the present, and then cultivate that. Practice seeing the impermanence of the self-view, the sakkaya-ditthi, the impermanence of cultural conditioning, the arising and ceasing of thoughts, the thinking process.'
From The Sound of Silence: the Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho. More on the impermanence of cultural conditioning here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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

Friday, September 07, 2012

Spare us the "Happy birthday Benjamin Britten" tweets

Benjamin Britten was a pupil at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk from 1928 to 1930, and the photo above shows the "drama-documentary" Peace and Conflict being filmed there recently. The movie, which will be released as part of the 2013 Britten centenary, explores the development of the composer's pacifism during his time at Gresham's, and the producers say it uses new research and recently discovered archive material. The photo comes via an Eastern Daily Press story and there is more background on the film website.

Although not mentioned in the film's promotional material it is worth noting that when asked "What would you do if Britain were invaded?" by a a tribunal for the registration of conscientous objectors in 1942, Britten replied "I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example" - an example which if followed by others in the event of a Nazi invasion would have meant the absence of Mendelssohn and a number of other composers from Aldeburgh Festivals. I have no other information about Peace and Conflict and this post is being written in western France, some 500 miles from my home in Norfolk. But based on available information the film does promise to add some much-needed value to what may otherwise be just another composer anniversary.

Thanks to Mahler, Cage and others, classical music is suffering once again from anniversary overload, and that is before we reach 2013, when Wagner and Verdi join Britten in centennial celebrations. Each succesive anniversary brings even more inane and valueless "Happy birthday Gustav Mahler" type tweets, even more puff pieces from social media apeing journalists, and even more unimaginative and unremitting cycles of the birthday boy's work (birthday girls rarely get the anniversary treatment) from orchestras and radio stations. I hope I do not need to restate my passion for Britten's music; but how many cycles of his String Quartets and performances of Peter Grimes will 2013 stand? And do we really need a BBC Radio 3 Britten Experience?

Composer anniversaries should be an opportunity for new exploration and critical reassesment, but instead they have become rolling hagiographies created to sell CDs and concert tickets, and grab audience ratings. I might not be in total agreement with the sentiment, but I would happily trade several of the current Cage anniversary bashes for one intelligently argued thesis that his widespread appeal has something to do with the emperor and his new clothes. Similarly I would trade any one of the ubiquitous Mahler cycles for a thesis that his symphonies are no more than third pressing Wagner. Surely reasoned dissent is as valuable as unreasoned praise?

Britten's genius, like Cage's, is, of course, beyond question. But let us remember these words from symphonist and pianist Ruth Gipps:

I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could; those who suffered from his jealousy (all of course normal married men) included Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and a number of other genuine composers. With his works framed in nothing but avant-garde Britten was able to shine - and went to his death a millionaire, complaining that he didn't get enough performances.
If recent anniversaries are anything to go by, the Britten celebrations will see too many concerts in which his music is framed by those that influenced him, and the many that he influenced. Which is very sad: the fact that Britten was right does not make those that Ruth Gipps termed his rivals wrong. Would 2013 be any less of a celebration if there was a little less Britten and a little more Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and even Gipps?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is via EDPnews 24, Ruth Gipp quote via The Innumerable Dance, the Life and Work of William Alwyn by Adrian Wright (ISBN 978184383412). 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