Friday, November 30, 2012

Does classical music really need an acceptable face?


Speaking in defence of eye-watering salaries at top American orchestras a reader commented that star conductors earn that much because “someone is willing to pay”. Which is quite true, but begs the question of why orchestras are willing to pay such disproportionate and divisive remuneration levels when many other highly talented musicians face penury. The answer lies in classical music’s obsession with acceptable faces; which, in turn, is driven by the misconception that only celebrities can make classical music comprehensible to new audiences. This misconception is encapsulated, for example, in the industry’s obsession with a doubtless very talented but grossly over-exposed Gustavo Dudamel. As well as being viewed, wrongly, as open sesames to new audiences, acceptable faces are also seen as a way of winning favour with subscribers, sponsors and critics. And that explains why Levine, Tilson Thomas, Gilbert, Dutoit et al are paid small fortunes every year.

So far so good. However, as I said earlier, the premise that classical music needs lavishly remunerated acceptable faces is a misconception. There is no doubt that classical music needs great musicians, and it also needs talented animateurs. But it does not need lavishly remunerated celebrities, because it already has a very acceptable and persuasive face - the music itself. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere the natural order has been reversed and classical music has become the servant of highly paid celebrities. Which not only distorts the industry’s economics, but also puts a barrier between new listeners and the magic of the music. If classical music really wants to sort out its ongoing financial crisis and reach new audiences it needs to kick the celebrity habit – there are already case studies of how this can be done successfully. Let me end by re-writing a fable which appears in many mystical traditions, notably Sufism:

A young man leaves home to understand classical music, and he travels all over the world and sits at the feet of many celebrities. But somehow classical music eludes him: he’s never quite able to get a hold of it. When he’s an old man, he returns home and opens the door, and there it is. Classical music was there all the time; it was just waiting to be discovered.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Don't try this on your Kindle


A New York PR agency was recently imploring me to bring to your attention an "adorable and amazing" eight year old Beethoven-playing piano prodigy. But I have a much more important subject to tackle today - underlining in books. Humanity can be divided into two groups, those who believe underlining selected passages in books is a heinous crime, and those who couldn't care less. I fall into the former category, and so, I know, do some readers. But embellishing books does have its uses, as the accompanying images show.


Shortly after his death in 1977 I bought several books from the library of Harold Rutland. Born in 1900, Rutland was a pianist, composer, BBC music producer and editor of Musical Times. He was also a lifelong friend of the composer Kaikhosru Sorabji who dedicated three works to him including the massive Fourth Symphony for solo piano, and the Fragment Written for Harold Rutland, for piano which Rutland premiered in 1927. Some of Sorabji's legendary eccentricity seems to have rubbed off on Rutland, who had the habit of sticking press cuttings into the margins of his books. Several examples can be seen here, the two above are pages from Curt Reiss' biography of Furtwängler, and the one below is from Lawrence Gilman's Toscanini and Great Music.


Harold Rutland's creative variation on book underlining has left us with several important documents. When Furtwängler died in 1954 Sir Thomas Beecham delivered a eulogy at a Festival Hall concert that was ignored by the UK press with one exception. The embellished page from Curt Reiss' Furtwängler biography seen below records what is probably the only known example of a public figure praising the Daily Mail. More substantively Rutland added documents to another book that shed new light on the dedication of Elgar's Violin Concerto - read that story here.


* Soundtrack is a work which has many instances of the pianistic equivalent of underlining - Kaikhosru Sorabji's almost four hour long Opus clavicembalisticum in the recording made by Geoffrey Douglas Madge for BIS. More on Sorabji here.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dangerous people who make our problems insoluble

High-earning conductors 2010: James Levine, Metropolitan Opera & Boston Symphony - $3.27 million, Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony - $2.41 million, Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic - $1.56 million, Charles Dutoit, Philadelphia Orchestra - $1.47 million ~ Los Angeles Times

In making this analysis Fritz [Schumacher] did not exclude the additional pressures to put up prices, which came from the struggle over limited resources… but he insisted that both sources of pressure could only be contained through ‘justice’, and ‘justice’ involved setting a limit, knowing when enough was enough. In practical terms Fritz suggested that meant a limit to salaries and had strong words to say to those who argued that limits to pay make it difficult to attract the ‘best’ people into the most important jobs. "This argument misses the point. Those who cannot accept that enough is enough are not the best people; they are dangerous people who make our problems insoluble and we cannot have them as top civil servants, industrialists, judges, generals, etc." ~ A Life of Fritz Schumacher by Barbara Wood.
As the quite justified anger over externally imposed cuts in classical music funding continues, remember Commodore Perry's words: “We have met the enemy and they are ours”.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why let the facts get in the way of a good industry myth?


From Gaddafi guerrillas to Grammy winners and on to, of all places, the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds – that is the career of trending Tuareg blues band Tinariwen who are seen above. Before their concert in the medieval market town yesterday I went in to a branch of Waterstones, the only multiple retailer left in the UK with any pretensions of being a serious bookseller. Large retailers use unit sales data from electronic point of sales systems to allocate display space in their stores - unlike classical music industry executives who base their repertoire decisions on industry myths about a lucrative mass market. In the Bury branch of Waterstones the section for books about ‘Religions, Beliefs & Spirituality’ occupies twelve metres of display space, while ‘Classical Music’ titles occupy less than one metre - which must say something about the relative appeal of the esoteric and the exoteric. Bury St Edmunds is just 38 miles from Aldeburgh, and it is not the first time this week I have asked why let the facts get in the way of a good industry myth?.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Is debate about Britten's boys "censorious hysteria"?

John Bridcut's book Britten's Children is quite one of the silliest and most misleading studies of a public figure I can remember. Why? Well the clue is in the title. Flick through it and try and find the references to girls. Britten's Boys would have been a better title. I haven't read it for a couple of years, but when I did my overwhelming impression was of a determined attempt to exonerate Britten. Bridcut interviewed a number of people who were "taken up" by Britten, including the actor David Hemmings, and recorded that nothing untoward had taken place between them. Hemmings stated that he was well aware, as the original Miles in The Turn of the Screw, how attracted to him Britten was; it was just that Britten never did anything about it. Bridcut concludes from his failure to find any evidence against Britten that the composer never did anything wicked.

This naive conclusion must be read in the light of the Harry Morris affair. In 1937 Britten, then 24, took Morris, a chorister aged 13, on holiday to Crantock in Cornwall with his family. Whilst there an incident occurred; Morris returned to London and a stand-up row took place between Britten and his elder brother; they were estranged for a time afterwards. Bridcut writes (p.52) that later in life Morris said he had been alarmed "by what he understood as a sexual approach from Britten in his bedroom. He said he screamed and hit Britten with a chair. This brought Beth (Britten's sister) rushing into the room, who, he said, shouted at her brother. She and Ben left, and Beth locked the door. Harry got dressed, packed his bags, and sat waiting for the morning. Without speaking, Beth took him to the station, and dispatched him to London. When he reached home, he told his mother what had happened, but she told him off and refused to believe his story. He never told his father."

Morris died in 2002. Bridcut notes (p.46) that "as an old man he had revisited Crantock, and the experience had made him feel ill". Then, astonishingly, Bridcut goes on, "Benjamin evidently delighted in laying on for Harry the same sort of treats as those he had given (another young protege), and in seeing his eyes light up with fresh experiences beyond his reach at home. This was what motivated him all his life in establishing friendships with boys".

I nearly fell off my chair when I read that last sentence. With all the participants dead, it is impossible to be specific about what happened between Britten and Morris. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suppose that this was an incident where Britten's interest in young (and therefore vulnerable) boys crossed the line. It may be the only time Britten did so; it may not be. In either event, Bridcut's general conclusion about Britten's conduct and proclivities is conclusively undermined.

There are further stupidities in Britten's Children, of which perhaps the most egregious are the many pages Bridcut devotes to Britten's relationship with Wulff Scherchen, a young German. It's true the pair met in the early 30s when Scherchen was 13 and Britten 20; but their relationship did not begin until 1938 when Scherchen was at Cambridge. The relationship was between two young men, and quite why Bridcut devotes fifty pages to it in a book called Britten's Children is a mystery.

Does it matter whether Britten was a paedophile? Well evidently yes if anyone suffered from his attentions; but even if he was it wouldn't make him a bad composer. Wagner isn't a bad composer because he disliked Jews.

If John Bridcut's letter in this morning's Guardian is anything to go by, he is still at the whitewash. "There was no suggestion of impropriety", he writes.

Perhaps he should re-read his own book. More on this in 'Re-reading Britten's Children'.
That comment on my post 'Storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh' was added today by Nicholas Simpson, and John Bridcut's letter in the Guardian is titled 'Britten's boys and censorious hysteria'. When I wrote my original post three weeks ago I observed “although I would much prefer to be writing about other things, I am reluctantly returning to the subject of Britten”. I can only echo that sentiment today; but I fear that it will be difficult to move on while the pervasive attitude of denial continues.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nobody owns a dead composer


The quantity and tone of comments on Martin Kettle’s brave Guardian column titled 'Why we must talk about Britten’s boys' highlights the problem of the ownership of dead composers. It seems every Guardian reader believes they own Britten, or rather believes they own an idealised image of him, and heavens help anyone who challenges that image.

In this discussion ‘ownership’ is a metaphor for the biases, agendas, conditioning, illusions, dualisms, allegiances and other emotional baggage that we all carry, and which are barriers to objective assessment. The ownership of dead composers is not confined to broadsheet readers. Radio stations claim ownership with marathon anniversary coverage, bloggers contend for ownership by championing favoured composers, authors assert ownership with biographies, and musicians make their own bids by specialising in a composer’s music. Others have commercial claims to ownership, including the estates of dead composers that benefit from royalties, the publishing houses that control their catalogues, and the foundations that fund performances of their music.

All dead composers are the subject of complex and conflicting ownership claims, but Britten is one of the more extreme examples. The Britten-Pears Foundation and Faber Music have persuasive claims, the residents of Aldeburgh have a different kind of claim and many still view Humphrey Carpenter’s frank biography as reprehensible, while, as debate about Britten’s boys raged in the Guardian last week, another ownership contender tip-toed around the dead moose of the moment by tweeting the revelation of “cup cakes served @aldeburghmusic”. There is no doubt the estates, publishing houses and foundations that represent dead composers do invaluable work. And, similarly, every composer needs their loyal followers. But let's not forget there are also numerous examples in the arts world of well-meaning disciples seizing ownership, and in the process distorting a great creative legacy.

Any outsider reading the comments on Martin Kettle’s Guardian column must inevitably conclude that classical music is not an art but a blood sport. Acceptance that nobody owns a dead composer would make classical music more tolerant, and, more importantly, would make it look less ridiculous to outsiders. Uri Caine is a master at de-bunking the ownership myth with his irreverent takes on composers which include upcoming anniversary boy Wagner played by a six piece ensemble in a café in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, as seen above. It would be nice if Uri added Britten to his scalps in 2013, if only to see the reaction of the composer's many self-appointed owners.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

JSB on LSD

Huxley was keen to repeat the LSD experience and did so two months later with Gerald Heard and Al Hubbard. They listened to music, something millions of recreational LSD users have since found to be a source of amazement. Huxley found Bach's B-minor suite to be "a revelation". He was so impressed he later wrote to [Humphry] Osmond: "Meanwhile, let me advise you, if you ever use mescaline or LSD in therapy, to try the effect of the B-minor suite. More than anything, I believe, it will serve to lead the patient's mind (wordlessly, without any suggestion or covert bullying by doctor or parson) to the central, primordial Fact, the understanding of which is perfect health during the time of the experience, and the memory of the understanding of which may serve as an antidote to mental sickness in the future".
That passage comes from Andy Roberts' Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. Its subject, Aldous Huxley, died peacefully on November 22nd 1963, the pain of his throat cancer ameliorated by a tab of acid. Many overgrown paths converge here. LSD as “an antidote to mental sickness in the future” leads to recent posts about musicians and depression, and about Elgar’s LSD connection. Aldous Huxley’s influence was wide ranging: in his memoir about Jiddu Krishnamurti, Michael Krohnen recalls how the great teacher had few memories of the celebrities he had met while living in California, which had included Igor Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood, and Charlie Chaplin. But he had strong memories of Huxley, who had encouraged the future author in his early writing. That mention of Krishnamurti leads to Pablo Casals, who, as was discussed here recently, was also a friend of the sage. And Pablo Casals brings us back to Bach via Catalonia. Although Jordi Savall would be my first choice for much early music, he is not a name that normally comes to mind for Bach. But I have been spending time recently with Jordi’s re-released 1990 recordings of the Suites for Orchestra – including the B-minor – and have found them, to quote Aldous Huxley, “a revelation”.

Huxley’s experience with LSD and Bach supports the findings outlined in my post about musicians and depression, namely that hallucinogens can build a neurochemical bridge between spiritual guidance and conventional therapy, and in the same post I went on to explain how practices using music and other non-chemical tools can build similar bridges when used in areas such as psychotherapy and palliative care. Quite understandably, hallucinogens remains a contentious subject, so, as a recent post advocated that classical music should return to its esoteric routes, I will end by binning the acid and presumptuously misquoting Aldous Huxley as follows:

Let me advise you, if you ever use music in therapy, to try the effect of Bach’s B-minor suite. More than anything, I believe, it will serve to lead the patient's mind (wordlessly, without any suggestion or covert bullying by doctor or parson) to the central, primordial Fact, the understanding of which is perfect health during the time of the experience, and the memory of the understanding of which may serve as an antidote to mental sickness in the future".

* In this crazy world of converging paths it is worth mentioning that I bought the re-release of Jordi Savall’s Bach Suites for Orchestra at FNAC in Perpignan, which is where Pau Casals recorded many of his legendary Bach interpretations. 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.

Stormy weather forecast for Britten anniversary


Stormy weather approaches from the Guardian.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For Saint Cecilia

Many in the world take music as a source of amusement, a pastime: to many music is an art, and a musician an entertainer. Yet no one has lived in this world, has thought and felt, who has not considered music as the most sacred of all arts. For the fact is that, what the art of painting cannot clearly suggest, poetry explains in words, but that, which even a poet finds difficult to express in poetry, is expressed in music.
Tomorrow, November 22nd, is the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians. In recognition of this, and in celebration of musicians of all cultures and colours, I offer that remarkably prescient quote from 1922 by the Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, together with Richard Hickox’s 1979 Argo LP of Gerald Finzi’s Ode For St. Cecilia, a work which was premiered on November 22nd 1947 with René Soames, the Luton Choral Society and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult; there is more on Sir Adrian and Finzi here.

An appropriate number of musical birthdays fall on St. Cecilia's feast day, including that of the notably trending Benjamin Britten. Also born on Nov. 22 were the lesser-trending Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Joaquin Rodrigo, Jacob Obrecht, Stephen Hough, Hoagy Carmichael, Kent Nagano and Frantisek Benda, as was a certain most definitely non-trending music blogger. Among us there are no castes…

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The very short viola in my life


An email from a listener prompted me to listen again to ECM’s CD of Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life. While the disc was playing my attention was diverted elsewhere, and when I returned I found the music had finished. At first I thought I had miscued the disc, then I remembered that the ECM CD plays for just 39 minutes 39 seconds. Is this the shortest full price classical CD ever released?

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Monday, November 19, 2012

‘Condescending classics’ do not attract new audiences


Just a few days ago I pointed out that many of classical music’s current problems can be attributed to futile attempts to herd minority interest groups spread across many small niches into a single mass market. And now classical music has done it again with the newly launched Sinfini Music website which is bankrolled by Universal Music, although the site itself doesn't tell you that. Universal's classical labels, of course, include Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, and the group distributes ECM releases in many major markets. As can be seen from the accompanying examples, Sinfini Music is a product of the ‘condescending classics’ school of marketing pioneered by producers at BBC Radio 3, and by editors at the Gramophone and at the defunct Classic FM Magazine - the latter publication, incidentally, spawned Sinfini. They have all adopted the ‘condescending classics’ approach in their attempts to create a mass market, and, as independent audience data proves, they have all failed dismally. There is little point in questioning the editorial independence of a website that claims to be "run by a team of music" fans, but which is in fact managed, owned and funded by a major record company, or deploring the self-interested promotion of the site by certain music bloggers. There is little point because Sinfini will soon become a victim of its own hubris. Classical music is not about corporate condescension. It about inspiration, aspiration, independence, diversity, innovation, passion, and, yes, honesty. If you are still not convinced, read how the corporately condescending Gramophonelost two-thirds of its print circulation and failed to gain any traction as an online publication.



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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Seal symphony


Basking seals were photographed on the Norfolk coast this morning. I have spent much time recently listening to Sir Adrian Boult’s 1960s/70s cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies in the most recent EMI CD transfers, and they sound quite magnificent – particularly the choral Sea Symphony. Transfer from analogue master tape to digital CD format should, in theory, be a straightforward process; but in practice it seems to be a black art with some transfers of recordings sounding noticeably better than others from the same period. Christopher Bishop, who produced all the original VW symphony recordings except for the Sixth, which was the work of Ronald Kinloch Anderson, visited us last week, and he commented on the outstanding sound from the latest EMI transfers when we auditioned them on my Arcam Alpha 9 & 10 and Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 audio system. Although in his 80s, Christopher still has very sharp ears and a commendable sense of self-criticism. When we auditioned some more of his work in the form of the recently released Sir Adrian Boult from Bach to Wagner box he commented unfavourably on his 1974 balance between strings and brass in the Rienzi Overture! EMI’s financial woes have been the subject of much negative comment here and elsewhere. But credit should go to the few committed people – particularly Richard Bradburn – who are working with the label to make so many classics of the gramophone available at such affordable prices, and in such high quality transfers. For instance I would have bet a lot of money – and lost – that Sir Adrian’s big band Brandenburgs would never be reissued again by EMI. And it is good to know that, to some people at least, the sound does still matter.


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Friday, November 16, 2012

Contemporary reboot of a radio classic



Videos do not feature here very often because they strike me as rather a lazy way of filling a blog and also slow down access to the home page. But I thought it worthwhile sharing the example above from video artist David Theobald - he describes it as "a contemporary reboot" of the morale raising BBC radio show Workers' Playtime which brought live music to factory floors around the UK between 1941 and 1964. The video is a digital animation of rendered objects, and the mathematics behind the animation that allows the robot to hit the balloons must be fairly complex. Calling All Workers by Eric Coates, which was the signature tune of Workers' Playtime, supplies the soundtrack. I came across David Theobald's work in a recent exhibition at the excellent Ruskin Gallery on the Cambridge campus of Anglia Ruskin University. Good to see that whereas the traditional Cambridge colleges actively discourage visitors, the upstart Anglia Ruskin does exactly the opposite. There is more Eric Coates on London Philharmonic on Parade conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, an LP which prompted me to ask Why are marches the poor relation of classical music?

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Classical music must return to its esoteric roots

"My column on the problem with classical music and how a large proportion of R3’s audience should hurry up and die - independent.co.uk/arts-entertain..."
Let’s ignore the curious anomaly that on Twitter you can be ageist but not racist, and instead let’s drill down into that tweet. Arts commentator Fiona Sturges tweeted it recently to trail her column in the Independent which was headlined "Radio 3 needs an audience beyond this tiny elite" and which ended with this sentiment:
“...we can only hope... classical music will emerge from the dusty cupboard where it has long resided. And perhaps, by some miracle, it will persuade [BBC Radio 3's] longstanding, determinedly short-sighted, Twitter-loathing listeners to get with the programme and quit their bloody moaning”.
You might not think so, but the irony is that Fiona Sturges and myself are saying the same thing – we both think BBC Radio 3 needs to change. But the difference is that, unlike me, Ms Sturges is an iPod generation journalist and therefore doesn’t do facts, she just does sound-bytes. As has been shown here previously by reference to independent audience data, there is no evidence of the existence of a mass market for classical music. And more importantly there is no evidence that social media coupled with entertainment-style presentation can create one. In fact the decline in the combined audience for Radio 3 and Classic FM shows that not only is the classical music mass market a fallacy, but the attempt to create one is alienating the existing audience. In fact many of classical music’s current woes can be attributed to futile attempts to herd minority interest groups spread across many small niches into a single mass market group that lacks any common interest.

It is difficult to grasp what solution Fiona Sturges is actually proposing other than sending Radio 3’s longstanding audience one-way tickets to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland and giving the station's classical jocks free rein. And that is the problem, sound-bytes solve nothing. Of course classical music needs to extend it audience, but it must also retain its core listeners, otherwise the baby goes out with the bathwater – which is what is happening at Radio 3. Ms Sturges’ article is also notably short of case studies illustrating how classical music can successfully extended its audience. Positive examples are something that are featured here whenever possible, and recently I quoted Norman Perryman reporting on one of his kinetic art experiments with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard – here are Norman’s precise words "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!"

When I saw Norman and Pierre-Laurent's kinetic experiment at Aldeburgh - see header image - I was reminded of a quote from someone else who pushes the creative envelope, the Turkish Sufi musician Kudsi Erguner; they are words which echo Fiona Sturges’, albeit rather more eloquently:

Art must not be fixed in the past, or it becomes a dried-up tradition, comparable to a dead language. If an artist with a traditional heritage truly lives his or her art, it is contemporary art expressed in a specific language.
Sufism is an esoteric tradition that uses kinetic performance to open the door to a new level of awareness and consciousness, and it does this by looking inward rather than outward. For years classical music has been trying to lead new audiences through a similar door to a new level of awareness, but the mantra of accessibility and the shadow of elitism has meant that it has shunned the esoteric. Instead classical music has taken the exoteric route using external stimuli such as celebrity presenters, classical charts and social media campaigns. Which ignores the vital point that appreciating classical music is an esoteric rather than exoteric experience, and the listener can only pass through the door to musical awareness when something is triggered within the self.


Kinetic performances are just one way of triggering esoteric experiences. Music education and its cousin music therapy are others, and heretical developments such as judicious amplification and etiquette-free concerts may also act as triggers, while convention-challenging contemporary music certainly has a role to play. But, above all, hearing - or even better performing - live music is the key to that crucial esoteric experience. Classical music should end its love affair with the exoteric and instead focus on replicating the epiphany that came in a far distant childhood when my parents took me to a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert that ended with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.

In her chronicle of Joni Mitchell’s ‘blue’ period Michelle Mercer explains how “… studies have shown that the music we meet at our most self-involved, in adolescence, is the music that hits us deepest”. More than fifty years ago something happened inside me during the third movement march of Tchaikovsky’s symphony; although I did not know it at the time I had experienced an esoteric revelation which, literally, changed the course of my life. My first classical record was Karajan's account of the Pathetique, that is my 1969 Deutsche Grammophon LP above; it plays in all its vinyl glory as I write and still sounds persuasively esoteric. Fiona Sturges' tactic of ridiculing existing loyal audiences is counterproductive as well as offensive; if classical music really wants to emerge from the dusty cupboard and connect with new audiences it must return to its esoteric roots. There is more on the potential of this market in 'Classical music's $11 billion opportunity'.



* My header quote is from Journeys of a Sufi Musician by Kudsi Erguner, a musician who has challenged traditional mindsets by working with artists as diverse as Peter Brook, Maurice Béjart, Jean-Michel Jarre and Peter Gabriel. The importance of this book is indicated by Peter Brook supplying the foreword, and chapter headings such as 'Traditional Music and Modernity', 'Meetings with Peter Brook', 'Journeys in Afghanistan' and 'Islam, Sufism and the Modern World'. A CD of Kudsi Erguner playing the ney reed flute in traditional Mevlevi Sufi music is included. Need I say more?

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Raga a good bargain


It is difficult to keep up with EMI's bargain boxes, and this 10 CD Ravi Shankar Collection - which is selling in the UK for under £20 - slipped under the radar. These highly desirable compilations are genuine limited editions and some are already deleted, so hurry. Collin Walcott was a disciple of Ravi Shankar's who went on to be the guiding spirit of the uncategorisable Codona - read more here.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ghetto music celebrates the festival of lights


Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags stream outside our house in syncretic celebration of today's Hindu festival of lights - Diwali, and music of the moment is Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 22 'City of Light' in the Delos recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Born in Boston in 1911, Alan Hovhaness's father was Armenian and his mother of Scottish descent. He studied at the New England Conservatory, and was organist at an Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts where his eclectic influences included the composer/priest Komitas Vartapet and, later, the Indian musicians Uday - brother of Ravi - Shankar and Vishnu Shirali. In 1942 Hovhaness won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood with Bohuslav Martinů. But he did not gel with the Tanglewood clique dominated by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, and the official Hovhaness web site reports that his music was ridiculed by the Tanglewood set, with, allegedly, Bernstein calling it "ghetto music" and Copland talking loudly (in Spanish) over an audition of one of his symphonies. After leaving Tanglewood Hovhaness continued to develop his unique composing style, which was shaped by both Armenian and Indian music. In the late 1950s he was a Fulbright research scholar in India where he studied with Carnatic musicians, and where, in an example of converging paths, he learnt the veena - the instrument of Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan. Hovhaness' output from this period includes the All India Radio commissioned Nagooran for Carnatic orchestra, and his Madras Sonata for two pianos.

Although Hovhaness' music was rejected at Tanglewood, his champions included fellow mavericks John Cage and Lou Harrison, with Cage supervising the publication of the piano composition Mihr in Henry Cowell's New Music series. With endorsement from a vigorously trending John Cage, and with a strong element of funding-friendly multiculturalism, Alan Hovhaness' relative obscurity may seem puzzling. But the reason is almost certainly the unforgivable tunefulness of his music. Despite Cage's advocacy, Hovhaness receives just one fleeting mention in Alex Ross' influential The Rest is Noise, while in Alan Rich's survey of twentieth century music American Pioneers, his oeuvre is described as "basically a conservative one, deriving much from the more garish repertoire of late-Romantic Russian composers, but often spiced with the long, sinuous melodic lines and rhapsodic rhythms of Middle-Eastern song and dance with the occasional use of traditional Asian instruments to expand the range of tuning". Alan Rich was almost certainly damning with faint praise, but that analysis actually provides a very good reason for reassessing Alan Hovhaness. He was an a contemporary of Benjamin Britten, so how about programming some of Hovhaness' music in 2013 at the expense of the ubiquitous anniversary holy trinity of Britten, Wagner and Verdi? A happy Diwali to all my readers.



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Monday, November 12, 2012

Sample John Cage's famous 4ft 3in piece


Some light relief is definitely needed right now. So, both as proof that the paid-for media has been getting it wrong for many years and in reluctant recognition of the Cage centenary, I reblog the gem above. It first appeared here in 2008 under the title Music for prepared organ, and thanks go to reader John Shimwell for sharing it with us. And staying with things Cageian, which topical composer when asked, "What do you think of John Cage?" replied "I don't think of John Cage."?

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

There's a lot of space in your music, but it's all you need

I remember at Tassajara [San Francisco Zen Centre] once talking to a classical composer and musicologist named Lou Harrison. I apologised to him for the lack of music there and for the fact that there was even a rule against having musical instruments. "Nonsense!" he said. "This place is full of music. You have all the musical instruments and music you need. I hear your bells, that thick hanging board and the drum going from morning to night. There's a lot of space in your music, but it's all you need".
I was reminded of that passage from David Chadwick's book Thank you and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan by last night’s resignation of the BBC director general George Entwistle. This blog's criticism of the BBC predates the current tabloid press witchhunt by some years, and On An Overgrown Path has repeatedly expressed concerns about the management controls within the BBC – the very factor that precipitated the present crisis. But I feel no schadenfreude about recent events, just a great sadness. I joined the BBC from university in 1971, and not only do I owe any communication and technical skills that I have today to my time with BBC Radio, but the idealistic culture of what was then a public service broadcaster left a profound impression. However, over the intervening four decades the rise of the commercial nexus, the deregulation of broadcasting, society's fixation with celebrity, and the almost infinite increase in communication bandwidth has created an out of control media monster of which the present day BBC is just one part. But I cannot sit in judgement, because on an infinitely more modest scale On An Overgrown Path - and this post - is also part of that new media monster. And push-button publishing and citizen journalism in the form of blogs and social media have not - as was once hoped - levelled the media playing field, instead they have merely reduced it to the level of the lowest common denominator.

As the Newsnight scandal has shown, there is no space in today’s media: speed has usurped accuracy, sound-bytes have replaced considered debate, and anything goes providing it falls outside the narrow definition of defamation. At the heart of the problem is the simple fact that over the past decade the number of news events has not increased, but the demand for news – driven by digital communication technologies – has increased exponentially. With the result that the reporting of news – genuine or otherwise – has expanded to fill the available space. It is inevitable that media organisations around the world will be watching and learning from the Newsnight scandal. And it is also inevitable and right that the result will be more rigorous editorial controls that constrain the supply of news, thereby leaving space in today's sprawling broadcast schedules. Classical music and the other arts need to do some fast thinking and seize the opportunity to fill the post-Newsnight media vacuum. And on my part I have resolved to leave more space in my blogging. That is Lou Harrison above - more on this under-appreciated composer in New music nourished by the forgotten past.

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

She made her life a bridge for others to cross


Chance, or probably a more powerful benign force, has triggered some of the most moving and rewarding overgrown paths. But never more so than the current one, which started last year when I travelled to Marseille on the path of that cultural explorer, Sufi adept and libertine Isabelle Eberhardt. During that visit I hunted for the house Isabelle stayed at en route to North Africa, where she was to die aged just twenty-seven. It took several attempts to locate the house where she lived with her brother Augustin at 12 rue Merentie, high in Marseille's Old Town. When I finally found the street I saw that one of the houses had the plaque seen below displayed, and at first assumed it marked Isabelle's residence. But on closer inspection the plaque proved to be next door to number 12, and was dedicated to another remarkable woman. It honours the British secret agent Elaine Plewman and two of her male colleagues who were arrested in the house in 1944, and then afer being tortured at the Gestapo headquarters in Marseille were executed in Germany.


That plaque was both moving and intriguing - I had no knowledge of women working as secret agents in Occcupied France, yet alone of Allied nationals perishing in Dachau concentration camp. But I was in Marseille on the path of Isabelle Eberhardt, so I filed my discovery away for further research. And what a surprise that research provided. Because it transpired that Eliane Plewman was one of four women agents of the Special Operations Executive who were killed by SS guards in Dachau in September 1944, and one of the others was Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of the Indian musician and Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan, and a talented musician in her own right who studied with Nadia Boulanger. This post tells her remarkable and tragic story.

Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in 1914, the grandaughter of an 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her mother was an American from a wealthy family; she was born Ora Ray Baker in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was the niece of an American Senator. Ora Baker (later Amina Begum Khan) met her future husband Inayat Khan at the Ramakrishna Ashram in San Francisco when he was on a concert tour of America in 1910. This tour included concerts at Columbia University in New York which predated the "discovery" of world music by Philip Glass, Brian Jones, George Harrison and others by more than half a century. Hazrat Inayat Khan had grown up in a religiously tolerant Muslim family in Baroda, India where he became an acclaimed exponent of the veena – a relative of the sitar - before travelling to the United States to perform with his brother and cousin. In the family group below Inayat Khan is in the centre with Noor on his right.



After two years in America Inayat Khan and his ensemble moved first to London and then Paris, where they benefitted from the fashion for all things all Oriental, and came into contact with Claude Debussy, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin and Isadora Duncan. In 1913 Inayat Khan moved to Moscow where his circle included Sergei Tolstoy, son of Leo, with who he collaborated on a pioneering music fusion project. Soon after Noor was born the First World War broke out, and the Khan family moved to London where Inayat met Mahatma Gandhi and the radical Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and became involved with the Indian independence movement. In 1915 Inayat Khan founded the International Sufi Movement, an order that transcends traditional religious divisions.



At the end of the War the family returned to Paris and eventually settled in a house the Paris suburb of Suresnes bought for them by a wealthy Dutch adept of the Sufi order - there are many connections between the International Sufi Movement and Holland, and the only European temple of the movement is at Katwijk on the Dutch coast. In Suresnes Inayat Khan started the practice of Universal Worship, in which all religions are honoured. His vision of inclusivity was to be a major influence on the decision that led Noor to fight the scourge of fascism, a decision that ultimately cost her life.



Following the death of her father in 1927 and subsequent failure of her mother’s health, much of the responsibility for bringing up her two brothers and a sister fell on Noor’s shoulders. But, despite this, she went on to study at the École Normale de Musique in Paris for six years, where her subjects were piano, solfège and harmony; her teachers there included Nadia Boulanger and she studied harp with Henriette Renié. The photos above show Noor with harp and veena. In addition to her music studies Noor completed a degree course in child psychology at the Sorbonne. During her time at the École Normale Noor had a close relationship with a Turkish Jewish piano student; although she referred to him as her financée her parents did not approve of the match which continued for several years before ending. Her brother Hidayat became a noted composer of Sufi-linked music for Western forces, while her other brother, Vilayat, eventually succeeded their father as head of the International Sufi Movement after studying at the École Normale with Stravinsky and the cellist Maurice Eisenberg. In 1934 Noor and Vilayat visited Pablo Casals at his home in San Salvador; Noor is seen in a photo below taken around this time.



In 1938 Noor started her writing career, and her English translation of the Jakarta Tales - a collection of fables about previous incarnations of the Buddha – remarkably remains in print today. The opening tale concerns a giant monkey who uses his body as a bridge to allow others to escape from a trap. All the other monkeys escape, but their saviour dies in the process. In view of Noor’s ultimate fate these words from the fable are heart-wrenching in their prescience:
You made your body a bridge for others to cross. Did you not know that your life would come to an end in so doing?
At the outbreak of war in 1939 the family was still living in Paris, and Noor and her brother Vilayat faced the choice between the Sufi path of non-violence or joining the fight against fascism. Unlike Benjamin Britten who chose the path of non-resistance, the Khans chose to fight. Noor’s decision was guided by the teaching in the Bhagavad Gita that action is preferable to inaction, and she believed it was permissible for a spiritual person to take up the sword if not motivated by hate. Her brother later eloquently justified their decision in the following words:
If an armed Nazi comes to your house and takes twenty hostages and wants to exterminate them, would you not be an accomplice in these deaths, if you had the opportunity to kill him (and thereby prevent these deaths) but did not do so because of your belief in non-violence? How can we teach spiritual morality without participating in preventive action? Can we stand by and just watch what the Nazis are doing?
The family escaped from Paris to Bordeaux and fled by boat to England, where Noor and Inayat enlisted to fight with the Allies. After a period nursing she sought more active involvement in the war effort by joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she trained as a radio operator. At this time she, like her father before her, also became involved in the Indian independence movement as well as appearing on BBC children’s radio programmes as a story-teller. She showed considerable aptitude as a military radio operator, and this together with her fluency in French and English attracted the attention of the Special Operation Executive (SOE), an organisation created to sabotage the German war effort and help the Resistance in occupied countries. Noor is seen below in her military uniform.



Noor was selected for training as a secret agent radio operator operating clandestinely in Occupied France. At the time there was a critical shortage of radio operators for the terrible reason that they were the most vulnerable of agents and had a life expectancy in the field of six weeks. For this reason she was fast-tracked through the training process and assigned to a Resistance cell in Paris, despite some reservations about her suitability for the role. On the night of 16/17 June 1943 Noor was flown into France, becoming the first woman radio operator to work in Occupied France.

Shortly after her arrival the Gestapo arrested almost all the members of the Resistance cell she was sent to work with. Because she was in immediate danger her superiors wanted her to return to France, but she declined and worked as the only Resistance radio operator in Occupied Paris. In this role she helped the escape of a number of agents as the Gestapo closed in, arranged the escape of thirty Allied airmen shotdown over France, organized arms and supply drops, and transmitted information directly to De Gaulle’s Free French headquarters in London. With other agents returned home she became the only British agent in Paris, where she worked alongside French Resistance members and also enlisted the help of her harp teacher Henriette Renié.

With the Gestapo closing in on her, arrangements were made for Noor to escape back to England. But on the eve of her departure she was betrayed, probably by the sister of one of the French Resistance members she worked with. After at least two escape attempts she was sent to Pforzheim prison where she was chained hand and foot with a third chain connecting her hands to her feet, and was kept on lowest rations in solitary confinement. On September 13, 1944 Noor, and three other women agents – one of them Elaine Plewman – were taken to Dachau concentration camp. Her three fellow agents were shot immediately, Noor suffered further torture and abuse by SS guards before being shot through the head, her body was immediately burnt in the camp crematorium. Noor Inayat Khan was thirty years old.

According to General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, the work of SOE agents shortened the war by six months. Noor was posthumously awarded a British George Cross and a French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star. Today (November 8) a memorial to Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled in Gordon Square, London, and it is thought to be the first for an Asian woman in Britain. So the brave young woman who made her life a bridge for others to cross to freedom will be remembered, as we must also remember the three other brave young women who died with her, Elaine Plewman, Madeleine Damerment and Yolande Beekman.



* We are fortunate to have a definitive biography Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu, which this post draws on.

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Great art has come forth from masters of public relations

The ongoing claims that government support is necessary to shield true artists from the commercial world’s philistine demands is a hangover from the Romantic vision of the creative genius. Certainly much great art has been produced by artists who thought of themselves as solitary geniuses, warring against an unenlightened public, and great art has at least as often come forth from masters of public relations and in response to demand.
As classical music's funding crisis deepens that quote certainly provides food for thought. It comes from Roger Evans' newly published biography of Xavier Montsalvatge, and the Catalan composer - who lived from 1912 to 2002 - was a past master of public relations. In contrast to fellow Catalan Pau Casals, Montsalvatge chose appeasement and not exile when Franco came to power in 1936. He composed for film’s sympathetic to the Franco regime but also consorted with Catalan patriots, and balanced a career as a high profile music critic with his role as one of Spain's senior composers. Montsalvatge’s attitude to politics mirrored his approach to music which he expressed thus – “nothing can have more interest than atonality that coexists with and confronts tonality”. In his biography Evans describes Montsalvatge as “a supreme master of political manouevering… perhaps his greatest political triumph of all, besides having simply survived, was the lack of appearance of all such calculation”.


In support of the thesis that great art comes forth from masters of public relations is Montsalvatge’s music. The Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra have taken a bold step to reverse the unjustified neglect of Montsalvatge with a highly recommended Chandos CD that includes his best known work, Cinco Canciones Negras (Five Negro Songs), and his little-known masterpiece, the 1985 Sinfonía de Réquiem – outstanding sound on that disc incidentally captured in the BBC Philharmonic’s new studio in MediaCity, Salford. Montsalvatge was greatly influenced by Latin-American music and his virtuosic and tuneful sixteen minute Calidoscopi Simfònic, which is also on the CD, should certainly be in the repertoire of one of the Venezuelan boy bands.

I bought the Chandos Montsalvatge disc online, but a copy of Xavier Montsalvatge: A Musical Life in Eventful Times came speedily from the delightfully co-operative Pendragon Press, Hillsdale NY in response to my request. Roger Evans’ invaluable biography is in the same series as James Gollin’s biography of American early music pioneer and public relations master Noah Greenberg. I was disappointed at the response to my post about Noah Greenberg earlier this year. So being a practitioner - but unlike some fellow bloggers not a master - of public relations I am plugging that post again today. Xavier Montsalvatge was born, possibly of Jewish stock, in the Catalan town of Girona which I visited in the Spring and featured in A Sephardic Moment. 1912 to 2002 - see how a composer can be made interesting and newsworthy without jumping on the anniversary bandwagon?



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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

I hear those voices that will not be drowned


In October 1904 a flash flood swept through the town of Ain Sefra on the Algerian-Moroccan border drowning Isabelle Eberhardt. In the photo below a body reported to be Isabelle’s is carried from the rubble (see footnote about provenance of photo). Cultural explorer, Sufi adept and libertine Isabelle Eberhardt - who was profiled here last year - has fascinated and inspired many people including someone described as “one of the new wave of scarily smart composers”. Missy Mazzoli’s opera Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt premiered in New York earlier this year and is still scheduled for release on New Amsterdam Records this month despite the devastation to the company's New York headquarters seen in the accompanying photos.


When I reported here a few days ago that my review copy of Song from the Uproar had been delayed by Hurricane Sandy I was unaware of the extent of the damage suffered by New Amsterdam Records. But now the label’s tireless publicist Jill Strominger has filled me in on the terrible impact. The label’s newly created multi-purpose music venue, offices, rehearsal and residency space has been seriously damaged, financial records lost, and CD stock and valuable musical instruments destroyed. The heart-breaking story is here together with details of how you can help the beleaguered label. In the second act of another storm tossed opera Peter Grimes sings “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”. Such is the power of music that, despite the flash flood in 1904 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, I know the voices of New Amsterdam Records and Isabelle Eberhardt will not be drowned.



* Isabelle Eberhardt’s biographer Annette Kobak qualifies the archive photograph as follows - "the authenticity is doubtful, since the army was in charge of the operation, but it was published in the original version of her diaries".


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