Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Music from the uproar

Hello Bob, Thanks so much for getting in touch. We will get a copy of the album in the mail once things return to a bit more normal after the hurricane here in NYC....
That email from a publicist in New York came in response to my request for a review CD. Quite appropriately the disc in question was Missy Mazzoli’s new opera Song from the Uproar. The story of how the opera’s heroine perished in a flashflood is here.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Could LSD have saved Tchaikovsky?


Classical music and hallucinogens may seem an unlikely combination, but there is a reason why consciousness altering substances have featured in several recent overgrown paths. As was described in my recent post Elgar takes a trip, prior to the global proscription of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in the late 1960s the drug had been used with promising results in experimental psychotherapy. Among those participating in the clinical trials more than fifty years ago were sufferers from severe depression. Statistics show that between 20% and 25% of adults will have an episode of mental illness in any given year and as a journalist who has experienced severe depression explained “…mental illness is a taboo…. few people talk about it or let on – unless they are so ill that they can't help it”. Depression can hit anyone, including musicians. Tchaikovsky was one of classical music’s many depressives, as the final tortured Adagio lamentoso of his Sixth Symphony testifies, and it has been speculated that his premature death shortly after completing the symphony was, in fact, depression triggered suicide.

Hallucinogens were demonised because of their adoption by the counterculture, and there has long been a view that their proscription has been a barrier to legitimate and important medical research. This view has now been officially recognised and two authorised clinical trials have been started in America using psilocybin in experimental psychotherapy. In a recent Independent article journalist and cancer sufferer Erica Rex recounted her experiences with psilocybin as a volunteer at one of the studies at Johns Hopkins University Behavioural Pharmacology Research Unit in Baltimore. Erica Rex’s experiences at the clinical trial were overwhelmingly positive, and she explains that “psilocybin works by providing a neurochemical bridge between spiritual guidance and talking therapy”. This is particularly interesting as there is evidence that a similar bridge can be built by non-chemical spiritual practices, giving further support to the use of alternative therapies including music in palliative care.

Depression is a serious subject that needs to be discussed more openly, and credit goes to Erica Rex for writing about it so frankly. However let me end on a lighter note. In her article she reports that psilocybin “allows patients a mini-holiday from their own egos” - which is a persuasive argument for making hallucinogens compulsory for everyone in the classical music industry.



* Esoteric trivia: the number three is in the ascendant - this is post number three thousand On An Overgrown Path and the traffic counter is nudging three million page loads. According to the cosmology of G.I. Gurdjieff - see diagram above - the energy in the universe interacts according to predetermined laws, with the Law of Three controlling the balance between the three fundamental forces - the Active, Passive and Neutral. Opinions will differ as to how the balance between those fundamental forces has been maintained over the past three thousand posts. But I thank you, the readers, for travelling with me down all those overgrown paths despite any perceived imbalance. Talking of which, my header image leads down yet another path.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bohemian Fifths and birthdays

I am having a difficult time with all the celebrations of my birthday, which are very touching but take a lot of time and energy which one would rather spend on writing new works.
Benjamin Britten writes presciently to Hans Werner Henze in November 1963. Henze, who like Britten clearly understood a composer's duty, has died aged 86, the photo above is from the cover of his autobiography Bohemian Fifths, which is well worth seeking out. I have always particularly admired Henze’s Double concerto for oboe and harp which was available in a now deleted Deutsche Grammophon CD with the Collegium Musicum Zürich directed by Paul Sacher, but which lives on as an MP3 download. Thankfully DG’s pioneering recordings of Henze conducting his first six symphonies have been saved from the corporate dumpster by the label that music lovers owe so much to, but which reviewers choose to ignore - Brilliant Classics. More on the Dutch label's dumpster diving here, while elsewhere Paul Sacher features in a post with the positively Lebrechtesque title of Sex, drugs and classical music.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Another composer anniversary hiccup


My post 'Britten’s passion for the East' tried to give a balanced view on this sensitive subject, and I wrote "what could seem 'strange and suspicious' decades ago is now 'touching, sympathetic and very beautiful'". How wrong can you be?

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Try downloading this


Readers will know I am huge fan of Jordi Savall’s idiosyncratic commitment to tactile product in the form of gorgeous CDs with lavish accompanying books. But this is ridiculous… Jordi’s record label Alia Vox has set up its own online store, and currently has some tempting deals on back catalogue. One disc filled a gap in my collection so I ordered it. A few days later a parcel was delivered by FedEx from Spain. My photo shows the single CD with the box it came in. As I wrote here a few years ago, I have seen the future and it is cardboard.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How many management agents are facing the axe?


Every day brings deeply disturbing reports of orchestras facing the axe as a result of funding cuts. But there is a conspicuous absence of reports of management agents facing the same axe. As explained here last year, management agents are the intermediaries who earn a fee of around of 15% for booking a soloist or conductor, or even the whole orchestra, for concerts. And that fee for a single concert can be 15% of £20,000 in the case of a star conductor or £10,000 for a star soloist - exact figures are impossible to find because of the secretive nature of the agency network.

Derailing the management agency gravy train will not solve the structural crisis facing classical music, because the root cause is the global banking crisis which has prompted deep funding cuts. But breaking the hegemony of the agents could deliver much needed savings while also bringing other valuable benefits, including the very attractive one of opening up career opportunities for the unsung heroes of classical music, the rank and file musicians. Let me explain.

The role of the management agents has always been justified by the argument that they fulfil the essential role of bringing musicians and performance opportunities together - in fact just like high street bookshops used to fulfil the essential role of bringing books and readers together. But the internet – which is a very efficient way of matching buyers to sellers together - changed all that, and bricks and mortar bookshops have, sadly, almost disappeared. Classical music has had a long running love affair with the internet. Yet, with the exception of some promising experiments with YouTube auditions, it has not applied new technology to the challenge of matching performers and performances. Which leaves classical music management agents as one of the few remaining bricks and mortar dinosaurs, complete with plush offices in New York and London and, now, China.

Many great soloists started their career as rank and file musicians. But there are many more rank and file players who are more than capable of performing as soloists – and even conductors - and sometimes do. The problem is they are not represented by management agents, and this closes the door to career advancement because soloist and guest conducting opportunities are filled by clients of the agents. Which means an ambitious rank and file player has to find agent representation if she/he wants to break into the big time - and so the vicious circle continues. But here is a 'straw model' proposal to break that vicious circle.

A co-operatively owned and managed secure online community – working title Virtuoso.net – should be created. Professional musicians without management agents seeking soloist bookings can register and create profiles detailing experience, reviews, audio/video clips, availability etc. Orchestras can register performance opportunities for soloists. Musician and opportunities can come together in one of two ways. Either by orchestras searching the musician database for suitable soloists, or by the orchestras posting soloist opportunities and arranging virtual auditions.

Initially Virtuoso.net would exist as a layer below the established agency network. It would provide a cost effective way for financially challenged orchestras to book quality soloists, and it would open up opportunities for musicians without management agent representation. It would also send a clear message to funders that classical music is putting its own house in order by cutting out expensive middlemen and favouring emerging talent over celebrity performers. But I have a feeling the idea would quickly take off, and as Virtuoso.net became the de facto clearing house for musicians and performance opportunities the celebrity soloists would be forced to join. At which point the management agent structure would collapse like the over-inflated balloon it really is.

This quick and dirty proposal is simply an attempt to prompt some different thinking, because well-intended actions - such as threatened orchestras playing tweets and musicians interrupting concerts - are sending the wrong message. If orchestras are to be saved from the axe musicians must change things within their own industry, as well as seeking change outside it. Virtuoso.net may well be pie in the sky. But who would have predicted the success of eBay which is built on similar principles?

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Whatever happened to the composer's duty?


Benjamin Britten spoke of “the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings”. Yet it is a paradox of twenty-first century classical music that activism only becomes a priority when times are bad and livelihoods are threatened. It was not always so, and Britten’s War Requiem, commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral, is a passionate statement of the composer’s pacifist beliefs. More recently John Tavener spoke to his fellow human beings with his lamentably overlooked ecumenical Requiem commissioned for Liverpool’s 2008 tenure as European City of Culture. But commission's like the Tavener Requiem are rare and contemporary classical music has largely abandoned site and event specific works in favour of more modest and new media friendly projects. Lack of funding is, of course, the main reason for this. But money has not disappeared entirely, and composers should take note of how the mantle of social engagement has passed to other art forms, notably the visual.

My photographs show the Abolition of Slavery Memorial in Nantes, France which follows the bold path of social engagement pioneered in 2001 by Daniel Libeskind’s deeply moving Jewish Museum in Berlin. Nantes, with its deep water quays on the Loire, was France’s largest slave port and one of the leading transshipment points for human cargos in Europe. Following the abolition of slavery in France in 1848 cynicism and a guilty conscience wrapped the subject in a cloak of silence for more than a century. But in the 1990s the city of Nantes chose to actively face up to its shameful history; one of the results was the commissioning of the Abolotion of Slavery Memorial as, and I quote from the memorial website, “an urban, a political, and an art project".

The memorial, which opened in 2011, is the work of the Polish born and US domiciled artist Krzysztof Wodiczko whose work expresses his committment to human rights and the plight of migrants, the homeless and the oppressed. Wodiczko worked with the architect Julian Bonder whose creations exploit the relationship between memory and public areas. Together Wodiczko and Bonder have created a meditative space from the quay where the navire négrier – the slave boats seen in the accompanying archive illustrations – departed with their human cargoes. An underground space evokes the holds of the slave boats, while the sunlit upper promenade overlooking the Loire evokes the boat decks and is studded with more than two thousand glass blocks – see my photos – engraved with the names of the boats and their destinations in Africa and America.

I visited the Abolition of Slavery Memorial a few months after seeing Israeli artist Dani Karavan's memorial to the German-Jewish philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin in the Catalan town of Portbou. At the centre of the Walter Benjamin memorial is his famous quote “It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned”, a challenge that Benjamin Britten with his musical Requiem, and Krzysztof Wodiczko, Julian Bonder, and Dani Karavan with their visual Requiems, have risen to magnificently. All four are creative artists are noted for the engaged nature of their work. Perhaps more proactive social engagement by contemporary composers would result in commissions for the musical equivalents of the Nantes and Portbou memorials, thereby creating a virtuous funding circle. My photo essay on the Walter Benjamin memorial is here.



This article is a contribution to UK Black History Month, October 2012. Photos are © 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.

Monday, October 22, 2012

May I always listen to the Anniversary Waltz...


Not only has David MacDonald, seen above, correctly identified Thomas Tallis as the trending mystery composer, but he also devotes a segment on his latest SoundNotion.tv podcast to the vexed question of What do composer anniversaries achieve? - watch on YouTube from 59.00”. Site traffic data, Facebook endorsements and re-tweets show a high level of interest in my posts on composer anniversaries, while the SoundNotion.tv coverage confirms the topic is newsworthy. But, predictably, there have been no links from vertically integrated sources, and I do not expect the subject to be discussed on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters. But I will be watching BBC TV's Panorama tonight to see if it sheds any light on another overgrown path that has suddenly become very topical.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Thomas Tallis’ tipping point

While classical music’s movers and shakers were turning a mobile phone ringing in New York into a Mahler anniversary storm in a teacup, others were helping Thomas Tallis find his tipping point. Last week I published the Google Trends graph below and asked “would any reader like to make an informed guess via the comments who the trending composer is?”


It did not take composer David MacDonald of SoundNotion.tv fame long to identify correctly both the mystery composer as Thomas Tallis and the trend tipping point as the April 2012 publication of E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey. And that leads down an overgrown path well worth exploring: because in their anxiety to keep the composer anniversary bandwagon rolling, the resolutely anti-elitist movers and shakers have dismissed erotic fiction as insufficiently elitist to be associated with classical music. Which overlooks the inconvenient truth that single-handedly E.L. James has managed to do for Tallis what the combined forces of journalists, PR consultants, artists agents, record companies and radio stations failed to do for Mahler, Cage, Liszt and Grainger.

I carry no torch for Ms James’ literary style, but there are some lessons to be learnt from Thomas Tallis’ tipping point. Classical music is becoming increasingly vertically integrated. The most obvious example is the BBC where the integration hard-wires developing musician's careers (BBC new generation artists) to managing BBC orchestras and commissioning new music for them to play, through to controlling “the worlds greatest music festival” (BBC Proms) and owning a proprietary distribution platform (BBC iPlayer). Vertical integration manifests itself in many other forms, for instance a leading management agency has diversified vertically into multi-media distribution, music journalists work for newspapers, broadcasters and management agencies, and major record labels bankroll 'independent' blogs. Vertical integration stifles innovation and creativity, and encourages corporately acceptable - ie safe - marketing. The result is integrated monodony in the form of the 'one trick pony' approach to promotion that puts an increasing number of eggs in the questionable composer anniversary basket.

The opposite of integrated monodony is creative polyphony, which is rather appropriate for a post about Thomas Tallis. Creative polyphony involves looking at problems from many angles and finding multi-faceted solutions, and it is a skill that vertical integration discourages. As a result classical music lives in an increasingly incestuous and rarified atmosphere that, with a few notable exceptions, excludes horizontal integration with other art forms such as painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, cinematography and even dance. This despite the indisputable evidence that creative polyphony in the form of Fifty Shades of Grey gave classical music its biggest recent sales hike. This despite the new audiences reached in the past by more edifying tie-ins including Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ken Russel's Elgar: Portrait of a Composer, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. And this despite the Mahler boom itself being triggered in large part by Lucino Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice.

There needs to be far more awareness of the insidious effects of vertical integration in the music supply chain. But there are other lessons to be learnt from Thomas Tallis’ tipping point. One is the importance of chance: Fifty Shades of Grey is an example of the ‘black swan effect’ whereby a surprise event has a major impact. And, of course, chance is the polar opposite of that ultimate expression of predictability, the composer anniversary. Another important lesson is that celebrity - the current holy grail of classical music – played no part at all in the upturn in the Elizabethan composer's fortunes. EMI’s Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album – which incidentally contains an admirable introductory selection of music - features Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' recording of Spem in Alium. Yet Google Trends shows no uplift at all for the search term 'Tallis Scholars', but does show a significant increase for 'Spem in Alium'. As Ravi Shankar once said ‘Get high on the music, it is enough’.



* Inevitably my soundtrack is Thomas Tallis, and if just one reader of Fifty Shades of Grey bought the Chapelle du Roi’s ravishing ten CD budget survey of Tallis’ vocal music on Brilliant Classics it would be reason to celebrate. Classical music should stop being so judgmental - does anyone remember Vanessa-Maes' t-shirt? - and instead start the search for new tipping points.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

What do composer anniversaries achieve?

2013 will be a bumper year for composer anniversaries, with Wagner, Britten and Verdi among those vying for media attention. But what do composer anniversaries actually achieve? Received wisdom tells us that they fill concert halls and woo radio audiences, and as a result ‘raise the profile’ and ‘increase awareness’ of the birthday boy in particular and classical music in general. But there is another view that says these anniversaries achieve little more than further raising the profile of already highly visible composers at the expense of those more deserving, while in the process providing a nice little earner for record companies, concert promoters and other intermediaries. As an example the Britten100 celebrations are being fronted by Albion Media, an international PR and media agency that also represents orchestras, musicians and media owners - a volatile mixture of interests that could, possibly, encourage hagiography at the expense of more balanced critical reassessment.

It is very difficult to find any facts on what composer anniversaries actually achieve, which is very convenient for those in the commercial-intermediary complex who are jumping on the anniversary bandwagon in increasing numbers. But there is one independent empirical measure of ‘profile raising’ and ‘awareness increasing’ that has been puzzlingly overlooked - or perhaps not so puzzlingly in view of what it tells us. Google Trends measures ‘interest over time’ by tracking Google search terms, and maps trends rather than absolute numbers. It is a fallible measure, but is still a lot less fallible than the opinions of self-interested music industry ‘experts’. Below are the Google Trends for three recent anniversary composers, Gustav Mahler and Franz Liszt in 2011 and John Cage in 2012 to date. All show large short term spikes corresponding to the actual anniversary date; but none show any significant longer term upward trend. In fact Mahler, who in 2011 had the benefit of a second year of massive anniversary exposure (over-exposure?), shows a downward trend in ‘interest over time’, while all three composers approach the year end with interest in them diminishing. Which rather confirms the comment on Facebook by an Australian reader that "My reaction, at the end of the [anniversary] year, is to decide I don't want to hear his/ her work again for quite a while".



A similar trend is also evident for lesser known composers, who it would be thought would be more responsive to increased exposure. Below is the graph for interest in Percy Grainger in 2011 - the fiftieth anniversary of his death when his music was featured at the BBC Proms and elsewhere.



In a 2010 post which explored Google Trends I asked “Could it be that classical music does not respond to mass marketing techniques?” Well, the graphs above suggest that classical music does not respond to the composer anniversary farrago. But there is evidence that classical music does respond to other pressures. Below is the much more positive interest trend for an established composer who did not have an anniversary in 2012. There are lessons that can be learnt from what triggered this self-evident tipping-point, but they will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile would any reader like to make an informed guess via the comments who the trending composer is?



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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Music for the perplexed


“The modern experiment to live without religion has failed, and once we have understood this, we know what our 'post modern' tasks really are” wrote E.F. Schumacher in 1977. Today Schumacher is remembered for his pioneering advocacy of intermediate technology in Small Is Beautiful. But he was a multi-faceted personality whose personal path took him from living without religion to esoteric traditions such as Buddhism and Gurdjieff’s 'Work' and finally on to the Catholic Church, a journey that inspired his neglected A Guide for the Perplexed from which the quote above is taken. I think Fritz Schumacher would have approved of the newly released CD Trialogue which mixes sacred vocal and instrumental music from South India, Morocco and Medieval Europe in a project that wisely takes the path of unity within diversity rather than fusion. Singers Aruna Sairam, Noureddine Tahiri and Dominique Vellard are supported by a transcultural ensemble of instrumentalists, and all are captured in gorgeous sound by independent label Glossa in the church of Mont-Saint-Jean, Burgundy - audio sample here. Listening to Trialogue evokes what Catholic theologians call “gratuitous grace” – it does not guarantee salvation, but is potentially helpful and should be accepted thankfully.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Aldeburgh’s answer to Mozart balls revealed


Friday’s post about words as sound shapes segued seamlessly into Exaudi’s Sunday afternoon Aldeburgh open session which featured two newly commissioned vocal works challenging that conceit of the information age that what cannot be articulated in words is beyond comprehension. First up was Matthew Shlomowitz’s a cappella Instrumental Music which investigates the relationship between the human voice and musical instruments – check out the composer’s website for samples of his compositions. Following Instrumental Music was Aaron Cassidy’s wordless tribute to Francis Bacon A painter of figures in rooms; this “takes the human voice apart and puts it (mostly) back together again” and could just be the Stimmung for the information age.

Much credit goes to Exaudi and their director James Weeks for smashing the fossil and starting all over again, and to Aldeburgh Music for supporting their residency which was the prelude to a Wigmore Hall concert. But, as seen in my header photo, there was evidence in the Snape Maltings shop that Aldeburgh is struggling to find the balance between being in the commercial-intermediary complex, but not of it. Britten famously declared that “…the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music… it is not part of true musical experience… music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio”. What would he think of his image being touted to anyone possessing that twenty-first century equivalent of the transistor radio, the iPhone? And what would he think of Peter Grimes performed on his beloved Aldeburgh beach with loudspeakers reportedly substituting for a live orchestra? Was Britten right, and is the loudspeaker and its mobile media offspring part of the problem and not part of the solution? Is the centenary iPhone cover Aldeburgh’s answer to that best selling Salzburg delicacy Mozartkugel - Mozart balls? Are the keepers of Britten’s flame making a mistake by responding to Pears pressure?

Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. My ticket for the Exaudi open session was purchased at the Aldeburgh box office. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Anyone for classical music Zumba?


Learning and experiencing music through movement as taught by Dalcroze Eurhythmics was mentioned in yesterday’s post about Rudolf Steiner, and that path now leads to Gurdjieff’s Music for the Movements. This was composed in collaboration with Thomas de Hartmann to accompany the ‘sacred dances’ that formed part of G. I. Gurdjieff’s consciousness expanding ‘Work’, and both the Gurdjieff Movements and Dalcroze Eurhythmics are examples of music as utility rather than entertainment. It could well help the case for funding concerts and music education if classical music emphasised utility more and entertainment less – dance is just one aspect of the overlooked music therapy movement. Do any other bus pass holders remember the BBC ‘Music and Movement’ programmes which ran from the 1940s to 1970s? These were presented by Ann Driver who was a pupil of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze but broke with him after he criticised her for not crediting his system in the title of the programme. The mind, body and spirit market in America is worth $10.63 billion. Could classical music Zumba be the ‘Music and Movement’ of the twenty-first century? Header image shows pianist Wim van Dullemen’s recording of Music for the Movements. Another musical interpreter of Gurdjieff’s teachings features in Music as synchronicitous soup.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations

Combining ideas from Wagner and Schuré with his own doctrine, [Rudolf] Steiner produced the Mystery Plays, which were to become the focal point of activity at Dornach and have remained in the anthropological repertoire to this day. These plays, which trace the spiritual evolution of the same characters through four stages (a fifth was never written), combine the arts of speech, movement, colour and design in a Wagnerian synthesis which is given a new twist by Eurythmy. Steinerial Eurythmy (as distinct from Dalcrozian Eurhythmics) is define as visible speech and song; it is based on the idea that we are affected not only by the sense of words but also by their sound. This sound is produced as invisible waves disturbing the air, and the waves can be translated into visible shapes, resembling the lines of force embodied in Steinerian painting and sculpture. But words also signify something, and the shapes can therefore be used simultaneously to articulate meaning.
Yesterday’s question of ‘Was Wagner a Sufi?’ leads to that passage from Peter Washington’s survey of spiritualism Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. Wagner's notion of “universal currents of Divine Thought vibrating the ether everywhere and that anyone who can feel those vibrations is inspired” has been accepted since it was first propounded by al-Kindī in the ninth century, but has fallen out of favour in our binary age. But some free-thinkers have not rejected the notion, and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner are a major influence on the contemporary composer Jonathan Harvey. Increasingly Jonathan Harvey is categorised as a ‘mystical’ and ‘spiritual’ composer, a misconception aided and abetted by his recent compositions such as Weltethos which veer perilously close to the syncretic doctrine of Theosophy embraced by Madame Blavatsky and, for some years, by Rudolf Steiner. But pigeon-holing is dangerous and some of Jonathan Harvey's most important compositions explore sound as an abstract rather than spiritual medium. In his 2010 radio interview with me – see photo above - Jonathan talks about his fascination with Rudolf Steiner, and provides a priceless commentary on his orchestral composition Speakings which uses electronics to transform words spoken by the musicians into sound shapes. There is more on that interview here and it can be heard via this link.

Doubtless there will be many who will dismiss the idea of universal currents vibrating the ether as New Age babble. For them I offer Christopher Hudson’s description of his own analogue tipping point from his memoir Spring Street Summer. Hudson, a confirmed rationalist, was shown how to search for water using a hazel twig. Not only did the twig come alive in his hands, but he was then shown the subterranean stream to which it had responded. As Christopher Hudson explains:

There is no accepted explanation for water-divining, other than that it appears to involve a physiological reflex within the dowser, reacting to some impulse from what he is dowsing for, or possibly sending out an impulse towards it. C. returned to Santa Cruz, shaken to the core. Nature was showing him things he had not known existed. It had waited until the defences of his reason were lowered before rewarding him this privilege, to possess a sympathetic magic over its most precious creation.
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Was Wagner a Sufi?


Gustav Mahler once observed that it is not the music that is composed, but the composer himself. So this path enters unexplored territory in search of what composed Mahler's demigod Richard Wagner, and en route uncovers some surprising links between Wagner and paranormal experiences and the Sufi tradition. The meandering journey of exploration starts with artist Phil Travers who in the late 1960s created a series of album covers for rock group the Moody Blues. His creations, which included the Threshold of a Dream artwork above, were a visual extension of the Moodies' credo that an album was a total sensory experience rather than a succession of unrelated music tracks. This approach was shared by other bands and evolved into the concept album, a genre which included Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from the Beatles, Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys, The Wall from the Pink Floyd and Tommy from the Who, as well as other albums from the Moody Blues.

Concept albums were a game changer for rock music because they fully engaged their audience, and for this reason pioneering projects using extended sensory experiences to engage new audiences for classical music have received extensive coverage On An Overgrown Path - these include James Westwater’s photo-choreography and Norman Perryman’s kinetic art. Exploiting the link between the visual and the aural has some scientific justification, and the neurological condition of synesthesia - when sounds trigger a visual response – is often cited. But there is another state that links music and other sensory experiences which has received much less attention, probably because it comes under the umbrella of the controversial discipline of para-psychology rather than orthodox medical science. But it is well worth exploring as it is credited with inspiring several celebrated composers, and is reputed to have channeled the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold - the phantasmagorical image below is from a video of the Palau de les Arts, Valencia Rheingold production.



Hypnagogia is the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness during which lucid dreaming, hallucinations and out of body experiences can occur. It is not an identifiable medical condition like synesthesia, but is a state of mind that potentially can be experienced by anybody as they hover on the threshold of sleep. In Music, Witchcraft and the Paranormal Melvyn Willin reports that “Wagner believed himself to be lying at the bottom of the Rhine whereupon from his entranced imagination the opening music of Das Rheingold came to him (cited in Abell, 1955)". Melvyn Willin,  who incidentally is a B.Mus(Hons), M. Mus, LRAM and PhD, also quotes Bruch -“My most beautiful melodies have come to me in dreams”- and Berlioz -“I dreamed one night that I was composing a symphony and heard it in my dreams… on waking next morning I could recall nearly the whole of the movement”- to illustrate how the composition process flourishes on the threshold of a dream. While elsewhere Beethoven is among those claimed to have been inspired by hypnagogia.

Wagner may have been referring to hypnagogic experiences in his revelation to Engelbert Humperdinck that “I am convinced there are universal currents of Divine Thought vibrating the ether everywhere and that anyone who can feel those vibrations is inspired, provided he is conscious of the process and possesses the knowledge and skill to present them in a convincing manner...” This revelation takes us into the esoteric realm, and there is growing awareness of the links between Wagner and Eastern spiritual traditions. But so far research has focussed on the composer's interest in Buddhism while the parallels with Sufism found in the passage above and elsewhere remain unexplored. The digitally heretical and deeply unfashionable – which means definitely worth exploring – concept of “universal currents… resonating through the ether” is found in Sufi teachings ranging from al-Kindī in the ninth century to Hazrat Inayat Khan in the twentieth century. The symbolic act of raising a curtain or veil which provides provides the dynamic for several Wagner operas is found in Sufism as al-kashf, while the Arab-Andalusian Sufi Ibn ‘Arabī drew attention to the intermediate realm of al-barzakh between the known and unknown worlds where transformations and revelations occur, a realm corresponding to both the the transitional state of hypnagogia and the twilight zone of the Ring.

Other Wagnerian themes such as the quest for purification - Parsifal - and the tensions between a dawning modernist world and one based on traditional and esoteric values - the Ring - are also central to Sufism. And that mention of how Wagner's “entranced imagination” visualised the opening of Rheingold - in which a trance-like atmosphere is created by repeating an E flat chord for one hundred and thirty six bars until the Rhine Maidens make their entry - links directly to the use of music to inspire trance in Sufi spirit possession rituals. In her book about Moroccan Gnawa trance music Deborah Kapchan has a chapter synchronisticaly titled ‘On the Threshold of a Dream’; this quotes an observation by Ibn ‘Arabī (via William C. Chitiick) that provides both an interesting counter to the many Jungian interpretations of Wagner’s music dramas and another connection to hypnagogia:

Dreams are interpreted; but that which is perceived by sense perception is not interpreted. However, when man ascends in the degrees of gnosis, he will come to know through both faith and unveiling, that he is a dreamer in the state of ordinary wakefulness and that the situation in which he dwells s a dream.
It is known that Wagner studied Buddhism, however there is, to my knowledge, no evidence that he was acquainted with Sufism. But Sufi poetry had reached Western Europe as early as the Middle Ages, and it has been suggested – see footnote below - that Sufi allegories influenced Chaucer and Shakespeare. There are also overlooked similarities between Sufism and Buddhism – see Common Ground Between Islam & Buddhism by Reza Shah Kazemi – and today's path was sparked by a mention of the link between Wagner and hypnagogia in Sufi adept Robert Irwin's Memoirs of a Dervish, and by the following observation made by the Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1921: "Wagner did but repeat the teachings of the mystics of the East, when he said that he who knows the law of vibrations knows the whole secret of life". Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream opera - see visual of De Nederlandse Opera's production below - has done much to raise awareness of the links between Wagner and Eastern mysticism; let us hope that this productive topic will be explored further during the Wagner bicentenary at the expense of any more coverage of the indisputably important but grossly overworked links between his music and the Nazis.


'Was Wagner a Sufi?' is more than a Twitter-friendly headline. One of the many wide-ranging definitions of a Sufi is a seeker of inner wisdom, and using this definition Wagner and many others can be categorised as adepts. However there is no concrete evidence to link the composer to Sufism using the more rigorous definition of the tradition as an esoteric form of Islam. But, despite this, there are persuasive precedents for presenting classical music as an extended sensory experience. These include Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk - synthesis of the arts – which found expression not only in his music dramas but also in presentation innovations such as the Schalldeckel – cowling - at Bayreuth which removes the visual distraction of the orchestra from the audience sight lines. There is another Moody Blues album with a Phil Travers cover- see below - titled In Search of the Lost Chord. As we celebrate the Wagner bicentenary next year will total sensory experiences created by a synthesis of the arts be the lost chord that resonates with new audiences?
Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?

* Sources include:
- Sufism & Surrealism by Adonis
- Music, Witchcraft and the Paranormal by Melvyn Willin
- Wagner: a Documentary Study edited by Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack and Egon Voss
- Introduction to Sufism by Titus Burckhardt
- The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan
- Memoirs of a Dervish by Robert Irwin
- Adventures in Afghanistan by Louis Palmer (almost certainly a pseudonym for Idries Shah or one of his followers)
- Music: Mirror of the Arts by Alan Rich
- Traveling Spirit Masters by Deborah Kapchan
- Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner, Palau de les Arts production on four DVDs.
- Sir Adrian Boult from Bach to Wagner: EMI eleven CD set


* The hypothesis that Wagner had Sufi tendencies is mine only and I accept full blame for it. But there are other speculative links between Western masterpieces and Sufi culture. Respected academic Dr Martin Lings has identified Sufi themes in Shakespeare’s plays, while "Louis Palmer" - see bibliography below – suggests that there are “striking similarities” between the ancient Afghan romance Adam and Durku and Romeo and Juliet, however I can find no other reference to this latter specific example. Elsewhere the somewhat more controversial author and teacher Idries Shah – who may also have written under the pseudonym Louis Palmer – suggests that some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are based on stories by Sufi poets Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār and Mevlana Rumi.

* In 1983 Peter Hall – explorer of esoteric traditions and director of the celebrated film adaption of the Sufi parable The Conference of the Birds – directed the anniversary Ring at Bayreuth conducted by Sir George Solti. But, sadly, this proved to be far from a Sufi Ring, with one reviewer describing the traditionalist staging as “musty and tacky”.

* Apocrypha seems to be a constant on this past, so it is worth recounting one tale that links the launch of the Moody Blues’ career to classical music. A story tells how the band was commissioned in 1967 by Decca to record a rock version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony to demonstrate the company’s new Deramic stereo format, but instead used the studio time to secretly record their first best selling album Days of Future Passed. This story is repeated by the band's producer Tony Clarke in the documentation for the 1994 Polygram The Moody Blues: Time Traveller retrospective, but is dismissed in an excellent article in Sound on Sound magazine that also gives useful technical information on the Days of Future Passed sessions. The Moody Blues were rare among supergroups for being able to replicate their studio sound at live gigs, and the Time Traveller compilation contains an impressive sounding bonus disc recorded live with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks. I saw the Moody Blues live twice, once at a Reading University student’s union ball (1969?) and again a few years later at Wembley indoor arena. Yes, all very 1960s, but it started me on the path of music as a total sensory experience and led me to Wagner and beyond. Which takes this path full circle and back to engaging new audiences...

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Palau des Arts Rheingold image via The Berkshire Review. No review samples were used in writing this article. 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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Version 1.1 11/10/2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Towards genuinely non-digital content


While the new BBC director general George Entwistle bets the shop on producing “genuinely digital content” other more enlightened souls are leading the way back to genuinely non-digital content. High-end speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins has just announced the release of a 24-bit studio-quality download version of Mike Oldfield’s audio classic Tubular Bells. Although still working in the digital domain this lossless format reproduces the sound almost exactly as captured at the original sessions, thereby eliminating the quality degradation experienced with lossy digital formats such as MP3. Studio quality downloads are a commendable way of combining the benefits of digital distribution with (almost) non-digital sound quality. Much attention is given to the demise of major labels and other macro changes in the record industry, but micro developments by niche players such as Bowers & Wilkins are being overlooked. Another example of disruptive innovation by a different audio hardware manufacturer is the studio quality download of the magnificent Bach Matthew Passion from Linn Records that I wrote about in 2009.

Note that for licensing reasons the B & W Tubular Bells is only available in UK, France and Germany. 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.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

If information was knowledge...

‘We need to be ready to produce and create genuinely digital content for the first time. And we need to understand better what it will mean to assemble, edit and present such content in a digital setting where social recommendation and other forms of curation will play a much more influential role’ - new BBC director general George Entwistle in his first speech to staff.

‘If information was knowledge, dictionaries would be saints’ – Sufi saying
EMI’s new five CD Vernon Handley retrospective contains around 3500 megabytes of digital information. But, far more importantly, it also contains a generous helping of that increasingly unfashionable commodity - knowledge. As well as the obvious choices of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony and Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Nigel Kennedy there are surprise delights including Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little and Fauré's Pavane. The ill-wind of EMI’s demise is blowing some good in the form of cleverly compiled bargain priced bundles of left-field repertoire from knowledgeable musicians such as Vernon Handley and Sir Adrian Boult. This new Tod Handley box is selling for less than £15. Will a recommendation suffice? Or does it have to be a “social recommendation and other forms of curation”?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were used for writing this post. 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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, October 08, 2012

A highly recommended rip-off


Today the BBC launches iPlayer Radio, a new service that takes audio content out of the existing BBC iPlayer and offer it instead as part of a separate service on desktop and mobile. A BBC spokesman says iPlayer Radio will "make it easier for people to enjoy the BBC's vast audio archive" which is welcome news. But let's hope that the BBC also irons out the pricing anomalies. Because as I write you can legally listen to Bernard Haitink’s towering 2012 BBC Proms performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony for free. But listening to Sir Adrian Boult’s legendary 1976 Proms performance of Elgar’s First Symphony will cost you £12.99. The reason is that the Strauss comes via the BBC iPlayer while the Elgar has been licensed by the BBC to ICA Classics for CD release in a deal that deserves close scrutiny.

ICA Classics is the audio-video label of ICA Artists, the management agency led by former IMG Artists executive Stephen Wright. Archive recordings - including the 1976 Elgar - are licensed by ICA Classics from BBC Worldwide, a wholly owned BBC subsidiary that generates a turnover of £1.09bn by, and I quote its website, “exploiting media content”. And exploiting is a perfect description of the pricing of the ICA Classics Boult/Elgar CD. All the costs associated with the recording, other than a modest remastering charge, were paid for by BBC license payers more than thirty years ago, and the many fine musicians who played at the Prom will not earn a penny from this re-issue. In fact its previous incarnation prior to licensing to ICA was as a free cover-mount disc on BBC Music Magazine. Yet it is now being sold for little less than a new recording of the same work.

The only benficiaries of the inflated price are BBC Worldwide – 2011/12 profit £155m and chief executive's salary £480,000 – and ICA Artists – profit and chief executive's salary unknown. And the argument that BBC Worldwide profits supplement license fee income is specious: if the bloated BBC cannot live within its £3.6bn license fee income it should cut costs, not gouge the consumer. If any more evidence is needed of ICA Classics' predatory pricing compare their £12.99 price for a single archive CD with £15.99 for the historically important five CD Virgin Classics Henri Dutilleux retrospective, and £25.99 for EMI's magnificent Boult Austro-German retrospective which contains eleven CDs including a complete Brahms Symphony cycle. It would be difficult to justify £12.99 for a single BBC archive disc even if came with a lavish Alia Vox-style book. But it doesn't: the minimalist documentation credits no less than seven ICA Classics executives and consultants but does not mention the leader - Bela Dekany? - or any other personnel of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who play their hearts out for Boult in the Elgar and also in the 1977 Proms Brahms 3 it is coupled with.

As those of us who were in the Albert Hall in 1976 still vividly remember, Sir Adrian's interpretation of Elgar 1 was revelatory. There is a frisson to this concert performance that is absent from his studio recordings of the symphony, and the BBC engineers faithfully capture the sound and atmosphere that make the Proms so special. And, of course, in those days the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a world class band, but don’t let's go there. So Sir Adrian's 1976 Elgar is highly recommended - but not at this price. As I mused a couple of years ago - should we not be protecting great intellectual properties from the ravages of the free market and safeguarding them for future generations?

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

Hot or not?


Views from readers on recent format changes to On An Overgrown Path would be appreciated. For the past six weeks a new experimental “active view” format was used giving easier access to archive articles and capitalising on the graphic element of the posts. Slightly questionable readership data from Google indicated that a significant uplift in site traffic resulted from switching formats. However my own crude testing highlighted possible compatibility problems when viewing the new format with browsers other than the native Chrome, although no complaints have been received from readers. So I have reverted today to the old-style format. Feedback on preferred format would be appreciated either via comments or email to overgrownpath (at) hotmail (dot) co (dot) uk. Changes were prompted, incidentally, by a new version of the Google Blogger editor used to create the blog. This “upgraded” version is one of the most flawed pieces of software I have ever had the misfortune to use, but backward compatibility of archive material and my ageing brain make a change to another editor impractical. And, it goes without saying, Google has no interest at all in feedback on their buggy product from a fairly heavyweight user. But it is function not form that matters - so some thoughts on what is hot and not.

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, October 04, 2012

Smash the fossil and start all over again

No matter how powerful the teacher, his followers can always be trusted to bring his world to a halt. This they generally do by creating a cult of personality around the teacher himself, and fossilizing everything in exactly the form it was given. Using this fossilized teaching, they engage in mechanical repetitions of certain patterns of behaviour, assuring themselves and each other that they will attain liberation and higher consciousness as long as they never, never make the slightest change in anything the master taught. But life is change, and what is appropriate for one period is not necessarily valid for another. So all this effort to hold on to certain forms only results in the arrest of development. So another teacher has to appear, smash the fossil and start all over again.'
Robert de Ropp is referring to the Gurdjieff cult. But his words apply equally to the cult of the anniversary composer.

Quote comes via Stairway to the Stars: Sufism, Gurdjieff and the Inner Tradition of Mankind by Max Gorman. 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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

With a little help from our friends

October 4th is World Animal Day. Which explains why this morning I thought I saw a Sufi cat.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Ginger can be booked via his agent Catskonas Holt. Report broken links, missing images etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.



Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Oh! What a forgotten war

Sahrawi musician Aziza Brahim was born in a refugee camp in the Tindorf region of Algeria in 1976. These camps were opened to house Sahrawi refugees fleeing from invading Moroccan forces at the start of the Western Sahara War which lasted from 1975 to 1991. The war was fought between Morocco, which claims sovereignty over the region, and the Algerian-backed Sahrawi Polisario Front, which works for independence for Western Sahara - the Sahrawi are mixed-culture nomads who are the long-term inhabitants of the region.

Although a UN monitored ceasefire came into effect in 1991 the conflict remains unresolved. With Morocco occupying most of the disputed territory many Sahrawi refugees still live in the camps after almost forty years - the exact numbers are disputed but estimates range between 45,000 and 165,000. A UN proposed plebiscite on independence has been repeatedly blocked with the connivance of the Western powers, and in the ensuing vacuum the killings have continued, with at least ten dead in a Moroccan raid on a Sahrawi camp in 2010. The UN has now designated the Western Sahara one of world's last remaining major non-self governing territories. Yet media coverage of this protracted humanitarian tragedy is sparse, leaving protest music as the main way of drawing attention to the fate of the Sahrawis.

Mabruk is the latest album from Aziza Brahim, who is being acclaimed as the new voice of the Sahrawi people. She practices musical activism and can no longer visit the occupied zones as she is considered an enemy of Morocco and fears imprisonment and torture. Several tracks on the new album set verses by her grandmother Ljadra Mint Mabruk, a celebrated Sahrawi poet, and her daughter mixes blues, rock and funk with traditional Sahrawi percussion in a passionate protest against injustice. It is all a far cry from the “first comes the belly, then comes morality” of today’s music industry. But it is very close to the credo that Pablo Casals spelt out years ago -

An affront to human dignity is an affront to me; and to protest against injustice is a matter of conscience. Are human rights of less importance to an artist than to other men? Does being an artist exempt him from his obligations as a man? If anything, the artist has an even greater responsibility, because he has been granted special sensitivities and perceptions and because his voice may be heard when others may not. Who, indeed, should be more concerned that the artist about the defence of liberty and free inquiry? Such fundamentals are essential to his very creativity.
This article is a contribution to UK Black History Month, October 2012 My copy of Mabruk was bought in France. 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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.