Monday, December 31, 2012

2013 – the year of the repeat...repeat...repeat...repeat...


In 2012 classical music dutifully celebrated John Cage’s centenary but resolutely ignored his creative credo of ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones’. Which means that in 2013 there will be at least twenty-three different Ring cycles around the world and twenty-four productions of Aida, while a search of the Britten anniversary performance database returns no less than one hundred and twenty results for ‘Peter Grimes’. Predictably, BBC Radio 3 has been leading the charge by drip-feeding the Ring at the rate of one act a day over Christmas - a piecemeal approach adopted presumably because the station's fickle audience will decamp wholesale back to Classic FM if confronted with a complete Wagner opera – while Munich also jumped the gun with a Verdi gala on December 26th.

With social media functioning as a massive echo chamber, mediated repetition has become the new black at the expense of the vitally important activity of unmediated exploration. Which is ironic as I am certain that Wagner, Britten and even Verdi would have agreed with Edwin Rothschild's observation that "We want the artist to scratch our backs in the old familiar places, when we should be eager to mount behind him on his Pegasus, that we might see the world from his many points of vantage. We do not realise that the old familiar things were once new, spontaneous, even shocking, and therein lay the force and meaning of the spiritual energy which they embodied".

In his preface to Essential Zen Kazuaki Tanahashi talks of the "dynamic of non-possession which is an essential part of the creative process in the Zen world", whereas, by contrast, contemporary Western culture seeks possession by repetition. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and an illuminating case study of the dynamics of non-possession is provided by the career of avant-garde percussionist and composer Stomu Yamash'ta. Born in 1947 in Kyoto, Japan, Yamash'ta studied at the Juilliard and his breakthrough came with the premiere performance of Heuwell Tircuit's Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra with Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969. He went on to work with many leading figures in contemporary music including Toru Takemitsu, Peter Maxwell Davies and Hans Werner Henze, and appeared at the Aldeburgh Festival, while his movie credits include playing Maxwell Davies' score for Ken Russell's film The Devils and John William's early score for Robert Altman's 1972 Images, and he contributed music to David Bowie's movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. He also formed the Red Buddha Theatre which brought a mix of jazz fusion, Noh theatre, kabuki and mime to sold out venues in the West.



But at the end of the 1970s Yamasht'ta became disillusioned with the commercial imperative of Western music, and he withdrew to his native Kyoto to study at the Daitokuji Temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism - this was the temple where Beat poet Gary Snyder had sat sesshin ten years earlier. Yamasht'ta has developed a new career expressing Buddhist values through his compositions by providing liturgical music for the Daitokuji Temple where he is seen in the photo above, while also continuing to work on new lower profile electronica/ambient projects. The percussionist/composer explained his dramatic change in career direction in these words "Record companies are too demanding - I want to make music when I'm ready", an explanation his colleagues in Los Angeles and elsewhere would do well to take note of.

While classical music was embarking on a two year orgy of Mahler repeats in 2010, the CD seen below on Radio France's Ocora label slipped out into the market unannounced and unnoticed, despite being - and I use the words advisedly - a contemporary masterpiece. Zen Hoyo is a liturgical sequence alternating percussion sequences scored and played by Stomu Yamasht'ta with Buddhist sutras and prayers. Atmospherically recorded in the Daitokuji Temple, Yamash'ta combines traditional instruments with lithophones - prepared volcanic rocks voiced with micro-contact transducers and added reverberation - to create a truly esoteric soundworld. Philip Glass, another composer with Buddhist tendencies, once said 'I don't mind repeating failures until I get them right, but I am not interested in repeating successes'. Wise words that classical music would do well to heed as it moves into 2013 – the year of the repeat…repeat…repeat…repeat…repeat…repeat…



* There is an excellent profile of Stomu Yamash’ta at Perfect Sound Forever. No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. 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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Whether the speech please or displease...

But here, as at other times in my life, I dare not purchase peace with a lie. An imperious necessity forces me to speak the truth, as I see it, whether the speech please or displease, whether it brings praise or blame. That one loyalty to Truth I must keep stainless, whatever friendships fail me or human ties be broken. She may lead me into the wilderness, yet I must follow her; she may strip me of all love, yet I must pursue her, though she slay me, yet will I trust in her; and I ask no other epitaph on my tomb but “She tried to follow truth”.
Those are the words of social reformer and pioneer Theosophist Annie Besant. As yet another year slips away I dedicate them to the senior arts figure who in 2012 tried unsuccessfully to pressure me into amending one of my articles on sources of classical music funding, and to the well-connected person who made risible noises about litigation in connection with my posts about artists' fees.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Source of quote is Annie Besant's autobiography. Image of sunset at St. Gilles Croix de Vie, France is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, December 27, 2012

There cannot be, and there will not be lost memory

'Ideology is the key which unlocks all art, so, while Chantal may listen to the horns give voice to a hopeless yearning for the lost citadels of Europe, I hear something different, a lament for the way in which human beings have been sacrificed for gold. Alberic cheats the Rhinemaidens. He is robbed by Wotan who in turn cheats the giants. Fasolt kills Fafner. They all want that ring of power which is profit, this golden ring which turns the wheels of the dynamo and sends the dwarfish proletariat underground to work for their subsistence… There is a price for everything. That is Wagner’s message. And the gods are doomed. The fortifications of Valhalla are no stronger than those of Sidi Bel Abbès. That is why Wagner is great. He has got the enemy’s number.'
An eloquent if unremarkable exposition until you reach the penultimate line. Sidi Bel Abbès is an Algerian city famous as the burial place of the eponymous Muslim marabout (holy man), and as the base for the French Foreign Legion in the bloody Algerian war of independence. The passage describes a fictitious Ring cycle in Algiers opera house in 1959 and comes from Robert Irwin's novel The Mysteries of Algiers. Irwin himself became a Sufi adept, and deserves a place in literary history if only for the opening line of his autobiographical Memoirs of a Dervish - “It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to become a Muslim saint”. That memoir is also noteworthy for drawing attention to the links between Wagner and the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness known as hypnagogia, a link which prompted me to pose the question Was Wagner a Sufi?


The Algerian war of independence was a tripartite battle between between the separatist Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the French military and colonial paramilitaries during which hundreds of thousands died (exact numbers are disputed), including many innocent civilians. It prompted an exodus of around two million white French settlers in one of the largest displacements of humanity in the post-Second World War period, and its religious sub-agenda is evidenced by the Ketchaoua Mosque in Algiers which was built in 1612, was converted by the French in 1845 to the Cathedral of St Philippe, and became a mosque again in 1962 when the FLN signed a peace treaty with France.

2012 year was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Algerian war of independence. But outside France there has been little interest in the anniversary, despite the link between the failed colonial ambitions of Western European countries in North Africa and the topical Arab Spring. In France things are rather different, and my header image shows the newly released 4 CD compilation Algerie: Musiques rebelles 1930-1962 (Algeria : Rebel Music). This ranges across Arab-Andalusian, raï, Kabyle and chaabi music, and its co-production with activist movement Sortir du Colonialism (Retreat of Colonialism) bears testimony to Robert Irwin's message that there is a price for everything. Also noteworthy among French releases is the 2 CD compilation Il était une fois la musique Kabyle seen below. This gives a valuable overview of popular Algerian Berber music and includes a track by Cherifa Kersit who featured in my post Dvorak will never sound the same.

Last year I wrote about the forgotten war of independence in Music and politics in the garden of Allah, and in October this year French President François Hollande raised the profile of the conflict by ending official denials that the Parisian police had massacred Algerian pro-independence protesters in 1961, and went on to pay homage to the victims. The exact number of Algerians who died in the protest is unknown; official figures put it at just three, unofficial estimates are as high as two hundred. Hollande, who has also apologized for the “vel d’Hiv” round-up of Jews in Paris in 1942, has stated that “There cannot be, and there will not be lost memory under the Republic”. The notion that society cannot tolerate lost memory of uncomfortable past events is gathering momentum, and has resulted in moving visual art commissions such as the Abolition of Slavery Memorial in Nantes, France and the Walter Benjamin memorial in Portbou, Spain. But it is a movement that classical music remains obstinately detached from, preferring instead to stay within its own comfort zone.



Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were used in 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 and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, December 23, 2012

On the edge of transcendence

‘One can’t describe what pure transcendence is; it is beyond knowledge; it is zero; but the borderlands of transcendence are exactly what art is about and it is quite clear what those borderlands are. Sometimes you are just on the edge of transcendence, other times you are somewhere within the region and that is quite easy to describe because it has a lot of connections with the normal states of consciousness we move in day by day, so it can be mediated in those terms. Once one has a clear idea of what is at the basis of art, although art can never actually say it, I think it can induce such experiences in people by suggestion and encouragement: one can then see more clearly the aim of art and where to go, and life becomes very exciting at that point’ – Jonathan Harvey in conversation with Arnold Whittall.
Christmas greetings to all my readers.

* The more browsable 'active view' presentation will prevail over the Christmas break, but, fear not, the 'passive view' Overgrown Path will be back soon. Photo of Ferris wheel at Lincoln Christmas market is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Do you know any really normal people?

But the idea of a normal person is a fantasy of the mind. Do you know any really normal people? I don’t.
That quote from Buddhist monk and teacher Ajahn Sumedho is a useful reminder of the dangers of dualist judgements between normal and deviant. In the past I have been critical of the political deviance of the Benedictine community at L’Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in Le Barroux, France, and the arrival of the new CD seen above gives me a chance to redress the balance a little.


Le Barroux is far more than a monastery; it is an eclectic experiment that uses live audio streams and mobile apps to reach a global congregation, while at the same time revitalising the local area with a state-of-the-art olive mill - see my photo above - that services local smallholders, and a bakery that attracts customers from miles around. These monks certainly have the technology habit, and the candid shot below of one of their number administering last rites of the mechanical kind was taken from my bedroom window during one of my visits to Le Barroux.



But the finest product of the monks at Le Barroux - other than Divine Grace - is Gregorian chant, and their latest CD for the Jade label is a celebration of the Salve Regina, that most sublime of the Marian antiphons. On Salve Regina pour La Garde Gregorian chant from the monks is juxtaposed with organ works played by the young French composer and organist Vincent Laissy, all captured in superb sound in the resonant acoustic of the Abbey church by Igor Kirkwood. The programme ends with Vincent Laissy’s own refreshingly adventurous twenty-five minute cantata Salve Regine pour La Garde for voices, string quartet and organ, recorded with professional forces in Paris. The La Garde of the title is a reference to the new monastery in south-west France being built by the monks from Le Barroux - see the photo below - and the CD will help raise funds for the project. More details of Sainte-Marie de la Garde – ‘a monastery for the 21st century’ - can be found at the website www.jeconstruisunmonastere.com, which translates as ‘I am building a monastery.com. Traditionalist Catholics they may be, but the monks of Le Barroux do not miss a trick, and they even have an unlikely link with Lady Gaga. Who needs really normal people?



Also on Facebook and Twitter. Salve Regine pour La Garde was bought online. Photos 2 & £ are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012, photo 4 comes via Sainte-Marie de la Garde. 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

The answer my friends was blowin' in the wind


Back in July 2011 – pre Savile, Newsnight, Entwistle et alOn An Overgrown Path asked the question 'BBC Radio 3 - whose hand is on the balance control?' Now both an expert independent inquiry and the Commons Public Accounts Committee have separately reached the fairly obvious conclusion that there is no hand on the balance control at the BBC.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When will they ever learn?

That must be the most delightful picture I've seen in quite a while. It has forced me - no, not really "forced" - inspired me to order two of his books from Amazon. Thanks.
That comment was added by Scott to my post The sound of one monk jumping. The photo of the jumping monk Scott is referring to came from a YouTube photo essay about Plum Village Sangha by Paul Davis and that essay also supplies the images accompanying the current post, while the books he bought are by Nobel peace prize nominee and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh who founded Plum Village. Our political leaders can offer no solutions to the violence and greed that dominate at what should be a time of peace and happiness. Yet, while we admire the engagement of great minds such as Philip Glass, John Cage, Lou Harrison and Jonathan Harvey with Buddhism and other knowledge traditions, we have no expectation of a similar engagement from our political and business supremos. Plum Village and other communities can offer important lessons, but when will our leaders ever learn? My own photo essay on the Zen garden at Venansault, France appeared as The Sound of 4’ 33”.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

A cornucopia of composer anniversary tat


"They are a limited edition, so you will need to be quick…" trumpets an email from Aldeburgh promoting the Britten centenary merchandise created by design consultant Kit Grover; the goodies are seen above and include an eminently resistible Britten shopping bag. Despite being so close to the North Sea, the keepers of Britten's flame have failed to spot that the tide is finally turning and that even their peers in the pop industry have realised that audiences are “switching off because they feel their intelligence is being insulted”. And this thread is about much more than my personal dislike of composer anniversary tat. Neither Aldeburgh Music’s Twitter feed nor that of @BrittenOfficial made any mention of Jonathan Harvey’s untimely death on December 4, despite the personal links between the two composers. But in the same period there were tweets asking “Who’d like some Britten & Pears cufflinks for Christmas?” (Dec 7) and “or…what about an iphone cover?” (Dec 8).

If you are looking for a Britten related gift I would recommend saving £19.99 on the Britten & Pears cufflinks, and instead spending £17.99 on A. M. Garnham’s overlooked but important Hans Keller and Internment which documents Keller’s development as a musician and writer during and immediately after his internment in Britain as a ‘Hitler emigré’. Keller is an very important figure in twentieth-century music in his own right, but was also a major influence on both Benjamin Britten and Jonathan Harvey. Alison Garnham’s book has additional merit as a pioneering study of internment camps, an insidious institution that is overshadowed by its more mediagenic cousin the concentration camp.

In April 1936, with political tensions near breaking point and just three months before the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Britten travelled to Barcelona for a contemporary music festival which included the premiere of Berg’s Violin Concerto. Also at the festival was the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge; in a footnote to his admirable biography of Montsalvatge Roger Evans cross-references to Humphrey Carpenter's life of Britten and writes: “Britten does not seem to have engaged with his Catalan contemporary and seems to have been far more interested in hearing polyphony of Victoria in ‘a rural monastery’ – presumably Montserrat Abbey – and exploring the red-light district with Lennox Berkeley”. None of which detracts one iota from the greatness of Britten’s music. But it is relevant to the composer's recent elevation to poster boy of the performing arts, and I have looked in vain through the generously funded Britten centenary events for a much needed seminar on ‘Britten – separating fact from fiction’.

In April 1939, as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, Britten – whose pacifist views once led him to declare that “I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example” - left Britain for North America with Peter Pears. As Britten sailed for Quebec on the Cunarder RMS Ausonia, Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War were being held in appalling conditions in internment camps in French Catalonia. Among those who worked tirelessly to help the Spanish refugees in the Argelès internment camp was another great musician, Pablo Casals . Last year I travelled to the site of the Argelès camp and described that moving pilgrimage in a post. Following my trip I discovered that double bass player par excellence Renaud Garcia-Fons' has composed an elegy titled Camp d’Argelès. This is dedicated “to the memory of the 100,000 Republican Spaniards who were interned in the Argelès camp after the retirada of February 1939” and is one of the tracks on his recent album Méditerranées. Renaud Garcia-Fons inhabits that penumbra between classical, jazz and world music where so many exciting things are happening. There is more about him and the memory of the nameless in Art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Hans Keller and Internment was supplied as a requested review sample. 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

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The sound of one monk jumping

There are enough Zen centers. We need more Zen corners.
Those are the words of the Vietnamese Zen master, peace activist and pioneer of 'engaged Buddhism' Thich Nhat Hanh. He was speaking at the Plum Village Meditation Practice Center founded by him in 1969 in the Dordogne, France, and among his many books is the best selling Being Peace. The photo was taken by photojournalist Paul Davis at Plum Village and accompanies a thought-provoking article by him about Thich Nhat Hanh's work. Soundtrack is Smiles of the Buddha by the the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt. More on his music in Hints of Penderecki, Ligeti and Stimmung.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

CD 'I didn’t really want to do' goes prime time


Classical music industry press releases rarely rise above self-serving banalities, and the few that arrive in my inbox are usually deleted without being opened. But one that arrived recently from Martyn Warren - director of the estimable Voces choral group - caught my attention so effectively that I am reproducing it below. Is this the precursor of a new art form, the anti-press release?

I was contacted last week by a BBC researcher from Desert Island Discs. And no, I didn't seriously think that they wanted me to choose my favourite eight records... Apparently Sister Wendy Beckett is on the programme on Sunday 16 December at 11.15am, and has chosen two tracks from the Voces' Gregorian Chant CD.

The CD was recorded with eight men in the Mary Harris Chapel at Exeter University - the washy acoustic is terrible for polyphony but fine for chant - in the summer of 1994. Tony Yates was the cantor. I didn't really want to do a chant recording - I wanted to record 16th century polyphony and I did not consider myself a chant specialist - but Chappell Recorded Music Library offered a decent fee which I could use to record what became our second CD, of pre-Reformation English polyphony (Taverner, Ludford, Sheppard).

The chant CD later became part of the Sunday Times Music Collection, which is how Sister Wendy came across it. My mother-in-law also came across it, and bought a copy for me not noticing my name on the cover. (She never was one for fine detail - she later sent me a tape which she thought was 'Gregorian Voices' but which turned out to be 'Georgian Voices' - folk music from Stalin's homeland of the kind that makes you want to slit your throat after 3 tracks).

The CD has since surfaced again on Amazon under the title 'Voces: The Angelic Choir'. Recording was a tense process - the chapel is on a hill above the city, and every police siren, train klaxon, and motorbike revving ruined the take. At one point (it was Exeter Festival time) we had to wait while a light aircraft trailing a banner spent half an hour tooling about above us...
Sister Wendy Becket is a nun at the Carmelite Monastery, Quiddenham, near where I write this post. The monastery and Handel's music for the Carmelite Vespers features in Dialogue of the Carmelites.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Life can seem very unfair


That photo first appeared in the 2007 post The Almost Submerged Cathedral and shows me riding my Moulton APB-14 bike round the Lac du Der Chantecoq in the Champagne region of France. I have been a Moulton owner for twenty years and some time ago had the privilege of visiting the bike's designer Alex Moulton at his Jacobean house in Wiltshire, where he had created workshops in the stable block. He read mechanical sciences at Cambridge and went on to pioneer the use of rubber in vehicle suspensions; his designs were used in the original Morris Mini as well as the unique small wheeled Moulton bikes. Now news has come of the death of Alex Moulton at the age of 92. The Telegraph obituary tells us “Toward the end of his life Moulton became increasingly exasperated with the decline of British engineering – something he ascribed variously to television, the financial services industry and the failings of the educational system”. In the last few weeks we have lost so many great minds. And what are we left with to console us? – Twitter. Life can seem very unfair.

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This is the dawning of the age of air miles

Daily news of funding cuts and orchestras under threat is very worrying. But when I read on another blog recently that we had won the fight for a celebrated cellist's instrument to earn air miles I knew that the corner had been turned and classical music is on the mend. Arman’s artwork Thale’s Cello in bronze and wood has been rotated in my header image. The artist’s tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris also features a deconstructed cello and can be seen in my post In the shadow of Chopin. Arman was married to avant garde composer Eliane Radique and supplied the artwork for the CD set of her masterpiece Trilogie de la Mort.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Without Ravi I would have ended up a boring old fart

People ask me always what I want to be remembered by, and I would like it to be not for my mistakes, but for the things that I was able to achieve – those that have touched the hearts of the people in my own country and beyond. God has been kind to me, and I have been very lucky indeed to have gained recognition and appreciation almost all over the world. It has been my good fortune that there have never been any problems with communicating the greatness of our music. In places where the people had never even heard of it, nevertheless it has been an instant success, and still there are warm receptions today everywhere I go.
That is Ravi Shankar, who has died aged 92, writing in his autobiography Raga Mala. EMI’s recently released 10 CD Ravi Shankar Collection is an eloquent celebration of Ravi’s art, as is Rhino’s lavish Collaborations box which showcases his work with George Harrison. The foreword to the 1997 autobiography was provided by George Harrison, and this quote from it speaks for so many of us:
Ravi became the bridge between my Western and Eastern sides. In many ways I’ve felt just like a patch board: I like to plug one person into another, one type of idea into something else. Ravi was special to me, because without him I wouldn’t have been able to get into the Indian experiences so easily. By having him as a friend, I could experience the best of India, and I was able to find it straight away. I said in an interview recently that without Ravi I would have ended up a boring old fart. Some people may still say I’m a boring old fart, but at least my life was enhanced and given much more depth through the ancient Indian culture, and Ravi was my contact with it.
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Their intelligence is being insulted


Pop’s X Factor TV programme has lost six million viewers in two years and advertising revenue is down 40%. The reason, suggests yesterday’s Independent, is because viewers are “switching off because they feel their intelligence is being insulted”. Does that sound familiar?

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Monday, December 10, 2012

The occult art of fugue


A Los Angeles Times article about John Cage's formative years in the cultural stew of 1920s and '30s L.A. quotes how the city was described in 1913 as susceptible to "spiritualists, mediums, astrologists, phrenologists, palmists and all other breeds of esoteric wind-jammers," to say nothing of "mazdaznan clubs, yogi sects, homes of truth, cosmic fluidists, astral planers, Emmanuel movers, Rosicrucians and other boozy transcendentalists". The inclusion of the Rosicrucians in that list of West Coast movers and shakers is prescient, as the secretive society of the Rosy Cross re-entered Cage’s life thirty years later via his fascination with the music of Eric Satie - in the 1890s Satie was the official composer and chapel-master of the Rosicrucian Order Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique, du Temple et du Graal in Paris and several of his works of the period are linked to Rosicrucianism. There are many other composers with connections to Rosicrucianism including Claude Debussy and Edward Elgar, the latter composing incidental music for a play written by a member of the associated Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Rosicrucianism has its origins in early-seventeenth-century Germany when a series of pamphlets surfaced reporting the existence of a mysterious brotherhood named after the fourteenth-century knight Christian Rosenkreutz. The mythology of the Rosicrucians captured the public’s imagination and fascinated influential figures as diverse as Descartes, Swedenborg and Leibnitz, and it has continued to attract occultists to the present day. All this despite recent academic research suggesting that Christian Rosenkreutz never actually existed, and despite evidence that the pamphlets were written by a group of Lutheran mystics as an allegorical spoof.

Michael Maier is an important figures in the history of the Rosicrucians, and his influence spread as far as the court of King James I of England, where he was for a time an advisor. Born in Ruidsburg, Germany around 1568, Maier, who remained a strict Lutheran all his life, combined his career as a royal counselor and physician with the extracurricular activities of occultism, alchemy, and – surprisingly - composing. Maier’s most celebrated work, his 1617 Atalanta Fugiens, is an alchemical emblem book that contains imagery, poems and text, and also fifty epigrammatic vocal fugues, or to be more accurate, two-part canons with a plainsong cantus firmus.

The fugues have recently been recorded by Michael Noone and his Ensemble Plus Ultra for the enterprising Spanish Glossa label, complete with instrumental accompaniment from the mystical combination of Renaissance harp sackbut and the Chinese two-stringed fiddle known as an erdhu. There are many good reasons to recommend this new CD, not the least that this is little known repertoire which is performed both expertly and extrovertly. It is also the starting point of an esoteric lineage that extends across three centuries to Eric Satie and on to the epigrammatic mesotics of John Cage. But the main reason that I heartily recommend Glossa's catchily titled Atalanta Fugiens: Music, Alchemy and Rosicrucianism in the early 17th century is to support a brave project that provides reassuring evidence of life beyond 'condescending classics'.

* Photo 4 in my post about alchemist and serial child abuser Gilles de Rais shows a reconstruction of the villain’s chamber in Tiffauges Castle. One of the books in the photo is Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens.

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Has new technology made it cool to 'photoshop’ reality?


Increased speed to market and decreased production costs are just some of the benefits of new technology. There is no doubt that the digital manipulation of images, sound and text has revolutionised the creative process, while web-based communication has made push-button publishing a reality in the form of social media. But the technology driven elimination of traditional checks and balances also brings risks, and the power and speed of liberating technology appears to have been a contributory factor in the recent BBC Newsnight fiasco and the subsequent Twitter scandal. Clearly these two high profile examples raise serious concerns about the dangers of the undisciplined use of liberating technologies. But a recent personal experience raises concerns that the transformative power of new technologies may also be creating a ‘fast and loose’ mindset that is encouraging the creative community to 'photoshop’ reality. Let me explain…

A few weeks back I came across the newly released CD Moroccan Gypsies seen above in my local specialist record store. Regular readers will know of my interest in the music and culture of Morocco, and recordings of the Moroccan Gypsy community – Dom - are very rare. So I did not hesitate to buy the disc, which is released by ARC Music whose website states “Established in 1976, we are the original world music label”. But the problem is that, in my opinion, the music on the CD is not by Moroccan Gypsies.

The problem starts with the CD's sleeve notes, which are credited to Diz Heller of ARC Music. The first two paragraphs of the very professionally presented notes give a brief background to the Gypsy and Dom communities, and correctly state that they originated from India. Paragraph three starts by saying “Various names that were used to designate Gypsy people in the Middle East include Barake, Nawar …” - an explanation which, incidentally, is remarkably similar to one on the webpage of the Dom Research Center. The note then continues “They [i.e. the Moroccan Gypsies] split up into many groups such as Issawa, Gnawa…Jajouka”. Which is factually wrong: the Issawa, Gnawa and Jajouka are not Gypsies, they are esoteric sects. And not only is it wrong to call them Gypsies, but they are also not the result of a common lineage that “split up into many groups”. In fact their lineage is ethnically and geographically very diverse - the Issawa are a brotherhood of predominately Moroccan Berbers from Meknès, the Gnawa originate from black sub-Saharan Africa, while the Jajouka of the Rif region come from an Arab lineage. These are errors that should have been spotted by anyone with some knowledge of Moroccan culture, or by a diligent editor.

Unfortunately, the errors are not confined to the sleeve notes, and although the the music on the CD is performed by Moroccan musicians, they are not, in my view, “Moroccan Gypsies”. As is correctly identified elsewhere in the disc documentation, the Groupe Sidi Mimoun is from the Gnawa tradition, and the Ben Souda group from the Issawa tradition. In fact the CD captures quite acceptable performances of the much more common music of the Gnawa and Issawa brotherhoods, and not music from Moroccan Gypsies. The Gnawa could be described as "itinerant musicians" - as they are on the liner copy; but ethnically, culturally and geographically they are not Gypsies. And neither are the Issawa - who are not even itinerant. So, when you buy this CD of Moroccan Gypsies, I do not believe you are getting what it says on the tin. Which is worrying, as this release is likely to find its way into public and college libraries, where - like Wikipedia - it will become fact.

When I contacted ARC with my concerns their customer services department reported they had “forwarded your email to the production department for comment” and offered, as a goodwill gesture, an alternative CD from their catalogue, an offer I did not take up. When I had heard nothing more after ten days I contacted them again asking for clarification and pointing out I would be writing about the disc. In response I was told the following on Nov. 14, since when I have heard nothing further:

The album was produced by one of our long standing musicians, Chalf Hassan, who is native Moroccan and a musician since childhood. He approached us with the idea of releasing an album of Moroccan Gypsy music. He met and recorded the bands and the texts were provided by him. As an ARC artist for many years in extremely good standing with the company, we accepted his expertise on the matter. We have written to him asking him to clarify his texts and position. If a correction is required in future reprints we will take care of this.
So far I have received no information from ARC Music that causes me too change my view that the CD is not a recording of Moroccan Gypsies and that there are errors in the sleeve notes. However if it turns out I am wrong, I will of course update this post. But if indeed the Moroccan Gypsies have gone missing, what is the reason? Were errors innocently allowed to slip through the production process because of a lack of checks and balances? Or was there another reason for the errors? Is Google replacing scholarship? Has new technology made it cool to ‘photoshop’ reality? Watch this space… And if this lengthy path about obscure Moroccan brotherhoods seems rather arcane, remember there have been much higher profile and more dramatic examples of ‘photoshopping’ reality. Among them are the Argo commercial disc that the BBC presented as their own proprietary recording, and most famously, the Joyce Hatto counterfeits.

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Latest composer anniversary briefing


Some illustrious names are joining On An Overgrown Path in questioning what do composer anniversaries achieve? The latest is Nike Wagner who, speaking in Berlin, has criticised “blatant Wagner marketing”. Talking of which, that accompanying visual is not a spoof; you can buy a Wagner thong from cafepress.com. But I searched in vain for a Britten thong, which surely would become a collector's item. Come on Aldeburgh, step up to the plate.

Please rest assured that no review samples changed hands during the preparation of this post. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Delius in search of Zarathustra


In the Delius anniversary year it is pleasing to see the composer's Mass of Life receiving the attention it deserves thanks to an outstanding new Naxos recording by David Hill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with the Bach Choir. But most of the attention so far has been focused on Delius and Nietzsche, so I thought it was time to redress the balance and give Zarathustra a little bit of the limelight. Peter J. Pirie provides one of the most balanced assessments of A Mass of Life in his book The English Musical Renaissance, explaining that “The words are by Nietzsche, from Also Sprach Zarathustra, and they are better poetry than philosophy; Delius loved this sort of intemperate, heady versifying, it confirmed his prejudices and he did not look too deeply into the logic of the text”.

Delius may have valued Nietzsche for his poetry more than his philosophy, but, nevertheless, a study of the text is revealing. Far from propagating Zarathustra’s original teachings, Nietzsche believed his destiny was to undo the damage caused by them. Central to Zarathustra’s teaching was the tension between the powers of good and evil, and Nietzsche believed that this duality was the root of humanity’s greatest curse – morality. So Nietzsche took it on himself to write the prophets’ disavowal in the form of Also Sprach Zarathustra. In it Nietzsche famously declares that God is dead and religion no more than a self-delusion, and he advocates replacing conventional religion with individually defined values that have the ultimate aim of transcending mortal limitations to create the ‘super-human’. This led to the loathsome doctrine of power is good and weakness evil; an ideology that Nietzsche shared with Wagner, which was misappropriated by the Nazis, and which still remains with us today in the politics of the extreme right.

It is one of life’s ironies that Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster) is familiar to millions today through two masterworks, Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and Richard Strauss’ eponymous tone poem, both of which subvert the prophet’s original teachings. The exact dates for Zarathustra are not known, but it is thought he lived in what is now Iran sometime between 1400 and 1200 BCE. At the heart of his teaching is the belief that each individual has a free choice between good and evil, and that following the path of righteousness leads to salvation. In its traditional form Zoroastrianism was practiced in fire temples, eschewed orthodoxy and advocated monotheism in the form of the wise god Ahura Mazda; which is why the religion is also known as Mazdaism and Magianism. Parsi (from the word Persian) communities in India, Iran and elsewhere continue to practise Zoroastrianism, but the contemporary faith has departed from many of the original values.

What is surprising are the links between Zoroastrianism - the oldest of the world's religions - and present day beliefs. Before the start of recorded history Zarathustra built a faith on concepts including a single God, good and evil, heaven and hell, and the end of the world. Today those concepts are cornerstones of three great revealed monotheistc traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and elements of early Zoroastrian rites can be found in each of these three religions, including baptism and ritual ablutions. Links to Zoroastrian occur in the most unlikely places - opposition to formalism coupled with dualist beliefs connect it to Christian heresies such as the Cathars, while one view is that the three Biblical wise men were Zoroastrian priests (Magi from Magianism), and Sorastro in the Magic Flute is, of course, none other than a theatrical reincarnation of Zarathustra.

Delius cannot be blamed for not looking too deeply into the logic of the text that he set in the Mass of Life. Because at the turn of the last century Nietzsche was trending, with Gustav Mahler - another fan of intemperate, heady versifying - setting the Midnight Song from Also Sprach Zarathustra in his Third Symphony. And Nietzsche’s take on the great prophet has continued to trend ever since thanks to Stanley Kubrick and others. But it may now be time to forget Nietzsche and let Zarathustra speak for himself, so that his powerful vision of good usurping evil and free-thinking usurping orthodoxy can resonate with a generation who have tired of the demi-gods of bankers, politicians and television celebrities. There is more unorthodoxy in A vintage year for blasphemy and heresy.


* Attempting to summarise Nietzsche in a short article is unwise. Attempting to summarise both Nietzsche and Zarathustra is doubly unwise in view of the erudition of my readers. Errors are mine only, but I did consult a number of sources. In Search of Zarathustra – from which the US edition cover of which the header montage is sampled – is particularly recommended for its commentary on the links between the prophet’s teachings and the monotheistic faiths. Its author, the late Paul Kriwaczek, was a music producer with the BBC, and his biography tells us “He left the BBC in the 1990s, when it stopped being fun”. Other sources include Paul William Roberts’ Journey of the Magi, Sean Martin’s Gnostics and A Handbook of Living Religions edited by John R. Hinnells. No review materials were used in the preparation of 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A great mind that found expression in great music

...but I wanted to solve a problem. To put it very simply, it was the problem of suffering, and it still is. This seems to me the most important problem, in fact the only problem which one should be engaged with: in art as in life, what is suffering and what is the key to alleviating it? It leads back to Buddhism. Buddha is famous of course for proposing just such a solution and it seems his whole life was engaged in the Bodhisattva mission of alleviating suffering, bringing enlightenment and releasing all beings, all living beings from samsara, the world of suffering. Be that as it may, I certainly felt that this more objective music was in the direction of moving away from this fascinating world of samsara, of suffering, in which we are interminably caught and upon which art endlessly meditates.
That was Jonathan Harvey speaking to Arnold Whittall in 1999. Jonathan’s path towards the Buddhist pure land, which he expressed so eloquently in his Fourth Quartet, has progressed further with his release from samsara and passing at the age of seventy-three. In Tibetan Buddhism - a tradition that meant so much to Jonathan - a Bodhisattva is a sentient being who is motivated by compassion and seeks enlightenment not only for themselves but also for everyone. Others will write eloquently of Jonathan Harvey’s contribution as a great composer. I can only write clumsily of his contribution as a great mind – a Bodhisattva mind even - that found expression in great music.

Header photo shows me with Jonathan Harvey in 2010 while recording our Chance Music programme. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2012. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

From Britten’s Children to Elgar’s Earnings


Book publisher’s new title lists are a far more accurate reflection of the classical music zeitgeist than social media chatter. Notable titles in Boydell & Brewer’s 2013 list include Richard Wagner’s Women by Eva Rieger, and Elgar’s Earnings by John Drysdale. The latter title is particularly topical as it “investigates whether Elgar's complaints about a lack of money can be justified by the facts”. In a truly accurate reflection of the musical zeitgeist the book’s blurb tells us that author John Drysdale is a musicologist and former investement banker, and that its retail price is $90/£50.

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Monday, December 03, 2012

On the path of history's most notorious child abuser


“Nothing, nothing is worth the crime of the abuse of a child” was the heartfelt comment added by a reader to a recent post. Child abuse is currently in the public eye, but the despicable crime has a history stretching back centuries. Tasteless coverage of this sensitive topic must be avoided at all costs; but treating child abuse as the crime that dare not speak its name must also be avoided. So, today's post takes us to France on the path of arguably history’s most notorious child abuser. And the reason for writing this post is that the villain is the subject of an undeservedly overlooked oratorio by an acclaimed contemporary composer; a composer who, coincidentally, is a woman.

Prior to becoming probably the most notorious child abusers in history, the Breton knight Gilles de Rais fought alongside Joan of Arc against the English. Born in 1404, Gilles de Rais was heir to a family fortune that included several castles in the west of France; he earned early notoriety by first proposing marriage to a four-year-old orphan girl, and then abducting his cousin and marrying her in secret. After a distinguished military career he retired from army life in 1435 and committed a large part of his fortune to extravagant ecclesiastical activities. These included endowing a foundation dedicated to the Holy Innocents at Machecoul, where the divine offices were celebrated with magnificent holy vestements, splendid sacred vessels, several specially commissioned portative organs, and a choir of young boys. Another venture was a vast theatrical spectacle celebrating the siege of Orléans – where Gilles had fought alongside the Maid of Orléans - which deployed one hundred and forty players in group tableaux. The magnificence of these spectacles was matched only by their cost, and the retired knight’s reckless spending precipitated his financial collapse.

For some years Gilles de Rais had dabbled in the then fashionable practice of alchemy. This practice is commonly understood to involve transmuting mercury into gold. But there are two more arcane applications of alchemy. One is its use to attain true wisdom or gnosis by creating ‘sophic’ gold. This search for gnosis leads to the third and most sinister aspect of alchemy, the transmutation not of base metals but of human souls, and it was this sinister aspect that was the downfall of Gilles de Rais. Having squandered his fortune by reckless spending, the bankrupt knight struck the most terrible deal with the Devil, by offering the souls of children in return for knowledge, power and riches.



By his own confession Gilles de Rais first procured, abused and murdered children in 1432. During the following years his activities escalated and at his trial the number of his abused and murdered victims - girls as well as boys - was estimated at more than two hundred; many of the crimes took place at Tiffauges Castle in the Vendée, which makes the accompanying photos taken by me during a recent visit to Tiffauges chillingly relevant. What happened in these chambers is described in the castle guidebook as “too unbearably gruesome to be recounted in detail”. But, elsewhere – and an adult advisory applies to the following passage - Gilles de Rais' biographer tells of lavish banquets, followed by acts of masturbation over the intended victims, dismemberment, decapitation and necrophilia, elsewhere sodomy and cannibalism are mentioned, and in his own confession the murderer talked of sitting on his victims stomachs and taking pleasure in seeing them die. After this the bodies of his young victims were burnt in the castle’s fireplace.

In 1440 Gilles de Rais was arrested following a dispute with a priest during the celebration of mass. The subsequent ecclesiastical investigation uncovered his crimes and he was condemned to death and hanged at Nantes. In recent times a number of apologists have questioned his guilt, these include the occultist Aleister Crowley and a 1992 tribunal of Freemasons and French officials. The terrible events of five centuries ago continue to exert a morbid appeal, and it has been suggested that the exploits of Gilles de Rais inspired the French folktale Bluebeard, on which Bela Bartók's based his opera Bluebeard’s Castle. But, although noteworthy, that is not the reason I wrote this post.



In 1991 the French Ministry of Culture commissioned composer Edith Canat de Chizy (b. 1950) to write a lyric drama based on Enzo Cormann’s dramatic poem recounting the last hours of Gilles de Rais’ life. Edith Canat de Chizy studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Maurice Ohana and Ivo Malec; her music is widely performed, and an Aeon CD of her orchestral music includes probably her best known work Yell in a performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Her Tombeau de Gilles de Rais for orchestra, children's and mixed choir, baritone soloist and reciter was first performed in 1993 at the Charterhouse, the experimental arts centre in Villeneuves-les-Avignon , and has been recorded by Disques Pierre Verany. Enzo Cormann’s libretto avoids any element of melodrama by taking an allegorical view of Gilles de Rais' last hours between sentence and execution, and it is an ambiguous and non-judgemental portrait that does not pronounce on his motivation or guilt. The excellent sounding recording from the acoustically outstanding L’Arsenal in Metz is available in both CD and MP3 formats, with the price heavily skewed in favour of the download version - amusingly amazon.co.uk categorises the MP3 version as ‘Classic Rock’. Edith Canat de Chizy’s Tombeau de Gilles de Rais may be topical for all the wrong reasons, but is still very well worth investigating.



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Sunday, December 02, 2012

Is this the solution to classical music's ageing audience?


A few weeks ago the Independent's Fiona Sturges tweeted that "a large proportion of BBC Radio 3’s audience should hurry up and die". Will this promotion, which is currently running in a local store, help speed the process? Soundtrack is Joel Frederiksen's Requiem For A Pink Moon, in my book definitely one of the best new releases of 2012.

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