Thursday, January 31, 2013

The buildings in which you play are seen as forbidding


Now let me try to understand this one more time... Universal Music’s chief executive Max Hole tells us that classical musicians “need to think about the way they dress, and to appear more excited and engaged” and “the very buildings in which they play are often seen as forbidding and not places many people think they’d be comfortable entering”. So to reach a new audience Decca TV promotes a CD of traditionalist nuns decked out in habits singing Gregorian chant in one of the most forbidding and difficult to enter places on earth, the monastic enclosure of a cloistered religious order - see image above from Decca promotional video. And the label then follows the best selling Voices: Chant from Avignon with the album below sung by a Franciscan friar in full fig. Is it me or is it them?


If you want your music dressed-down, exciting and engaging but still with a monastic connection, you must look beyond Decca and the other corporate labels. French independent Editions Hortus has recorded Edith Canat de Chizy’s Livre d’Heures, a contemporary setting of texts from the four principal Divine Offices in the monastic day – matins, lauds, vespers and compline – for women’s voices and instrumental ensemble. Edith Canat de Chizy (b.1950) is seen below at the recording session in the church of Saint-Pothin de Lyon, France. She studied with Ivo Malec and Maurice Ohana; the latter after hearing Livre d’Heures urged her to “make the music you feel, from your innermost self, and no other”. Livre d’Heures is sung by the Chœur Britten with instrumental ensemble Les Temps Modernes, and the couplings are Canat de Chizy’s Messe brève de l’Ascension, her post-Messiaen Véga for solo organ, and an extended improvisation on the three works by organist Loïc Mallié. This is uncompromising and engaging contemporary music which should be heard far more often. As I have said before, we should stop apologising for the way we present our sometimes challenging but always inspiring music, and instead be much more confident and bold in the way we programme and champion it. More on Edith Canat de Chizy's music here.


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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The practice of engaged classical music

The biomedical system, the predominant approach to illness in the West, has done an excellent job of making people believe that the most effective (and often the only) way to treat mental illness is with medications. But you don’t often hear about the horrific side effects of these medications, sometimes worse than the symptoms they are intended to treat, and the fact that drug prescribing is still essentially a guessing game. You don’t hear about the conflict of interest in having psychotropic drug research funded by pharmaceutical companies with a huge financial incentive to generate certain findings. The biomedical model, with its focus on biological causes, also tends to cut off dialogue on other conditions that can affect mental health. A number of ex-patients whom I interviewed found that medications were beneficial to them at some points in their life, but felt that there should be awareness that it may obscure the deeper, social dimensions of the problem.
That is an extract from an essay by mental health professional and Buddhist practicioner Maia Duerr, and it appears in Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism, an anthology of articles from the Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. That fellowship is informed by the teachings of the Vietnamese Zen master and author Thich Nhat Hanh, and in a recent comment I remarked on the remarkable coincidence that the previous owner of a book by the Zen master bought secondhand by me was a complete stranger who shared my not very common surname. Now, in a supreme example of interconnectedness, that previous owner has not only read my post, but has also added a comment of his own that bravely recounts how Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Being Peace helped him through a period of “serious depression resulting from work related stress”.

As someone who in the past has been there and done that – both work related stress and the deeply unpleasant side-effects of medications – his comment resonates with me and endorse my advocacy of non-chemical treatment of such conditions. Classical music has much unrealised potential in this field and I have already written of how A symphony a day keeps the doctor away. To my list of medically beneficial music in that post should be added the curiously overlooked symphonies of Alexander Glazunov. These are a bridge between the winter daydreams of early Tchaikovsky - who died when Galzunov was 28 - and the winter nightmares of Shostakovich - who Glazunov taught. But, thankfully, Glazunov’s eight completed symphonies – there is a fragment of a ninth – are more daydream than nightmare. If you don’t know these life-affirming works the set seen above of the complete symphonies together with his, again curiously overlooked, concertos is highly recommended. The symphonies are passionately played by the authentically Russian sounding Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the – sorry to keep repeating myself, but curiously overlooked - José Serebrier, while the Russian National Orchestra accompany the - yes, overlooked - concertos under the same conductor. And the current UK retail price for the eight CD Warner set of around £36 means the financial side-effects of engaged classical music are not too horrific.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Remixing Japan


When did Orientalia, the New York bookstore that fuelled the appetite of John Cage and many others for the Far East, close? Google, for once, fails to provide the answer, and I ask because in 1978 I stumbled across a store in New York that sold books about the Orient that were almost impossible to find in London at the time. Could the store have been Orientalia? Or had it long closed?

Buddhist author and teacher Stephen Batchelor explains that "A Zen garden can say as much about what the Buddha taught as the most erudite treatise on emptiness", and in that New York store - Orientalia or other - I found a book on sharawadgi‏ - borrowed scenery - that started a longterm fascination with the 'pure land' of traditional Japanese gardens and the culture that created them. Like many in the 60s the counterculture had led me to Indian mysticism. But my searches led me further East to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, which I visited in the 1980s. There I experienced that searing mix of extreme conservatism and radical questioning that is Zen and which finds expression in the famous rock garden at Ryoan-Ji Temple. Since then Japanese gardens have been a feature of our houses. A glimpse of the one at our present home in Norfolk appeared in my first post about Jonathan Harvey back in 2007, while a later post featured a recording of Jonathan's music which includes his ...towards a Pure Land, a work described by Michael Downes in the sleeve note as pointing "...towards the possibility of still greater beauty in the future, both musical and spiritual..."

Another garden in Kyoto, that of the Saiho-ji Temple designed by the 14th century Zen priest Muso Soseki, inspired the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) to write his Dream/Window for orchestra. That work was one of Takemitsu's orchestral works recorded for Denon by the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Hiroshi Wakasugi in the early 1990s. Also on the discs was Spirit Garden which uses a twelve note row to generate three chords each of four notes, with these sound 'objects' being heard in a sonic garden from different perspectives.

Re-issue specialists Brilliant Classics have released the Takemitsu orchestral works at sub-budget price. The two disc set provides an excellent introduction for newcomers to the composer's music, but are also a valuable resource for Takemitsu-philes as they contains the rarely heard November Steps for orchestra and two traditional Japanese instruments, the biwa and shakuhachi, and Gémeaux for oboe, trombone, two orchestras and two conductors with Christian Lindberg as trombone soloist. The notes for the Brilliant Classics release are provided by Takemitsu himself, and in his note for Dream/Window he describes how "beneath the hushed serenity of Kyoto, the gears of change grind on and on without cease". It is Takemitsu's unique ability to blend the hushed serenity of Zen gardens with the ceaseless change of contemporary culture that makes his music so special and which also make this Brilliant Classics re-release of his Japanese remixes so recommendable.

Max Hole, chief executive of Universal Music, recently presented his vision for classical music. In an earlier post I countered these proposals by saying “we should stop apologising for the way we present our sometimes challenging but always inspiring music, and instead be much more confident and bold in the way we programme and champion it”. This is the first in a short series of posts about new music that can - if programmed confidently and championed boldly - spread the classical dharma to a new audience far more effectively than dressing-down and dumbing-down. And it is not without significance that all my examples will come from CDs released by independent record labels.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Do classical music's big new ideas have real substance?


Readers will know that On An Overgrown Path is not frightened of new ideas, and in the past I have travelled many of the paths explored in the recent presentation to the Association of British Orchestras by Max Hole, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music – the company that owns Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, EMI, ECM and many other classical labels. However I am coming to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to support persuasive rhetoric about dismantling concert hall conventions – which form the bulk of his recommendations - with case studies of successful implementation. Which doesn’t necessarily mean his ideas are wrong, but it does mean they must be treated with a lot of caution. My own journey has also brought me to the conclusion that the biggest and brightest idea we have is the music itself. So we should stop apologising for the way we present our sometimes challenging but always inspiring music, and instead be much more confident and bold in the way we programme and champion it.

I have three serious concerns about Max Hole’s vision for classical music. The first is that his recommended actions are not supported by hard facts, and more seriously, in several cases they are contradicted by the available data. Secondly the crucial need to test and prove the validity of his recommendations before they are implemented across the board is totally overlooked. Thirdly the concept of opportunity cost – the loss from the existing core classical audience – of implementing radical change is ignored. So here is my contribution to the debate on big new ideas. I stress that I am no longer professionally involved in classical music, so better data - or contradictory data – may well be available. If there is better data please share it; the purpose of this post is not to prove Max Hole wrong, it is to generate constructive discussion.

My first concern is that Max Hole’s recommended actions are not supported by hard data, and in many cases they are contradicted by the available facts. That sweeping statement needs to be substantiated, and the only way to do that is to cite some examples:

Musicians need to think about the way they dress ~ An old chestnut that is contradicted by the facts. Just look at the massive CD and DVD sales of a musically lacklustre 2013 Vienna New Year’s Day Concert - currently number one in the specialist classical chart - played by a dressed-up orchestra to a dressed-up audience in a “forbidding” building. Dressing-down at concerts is guaranteed to grab headlines, but there is no evidence to support those headlines - I am not defending dressing-up, but simply pointing out there is no evidence that orchestra dress code affects concert attendances. In fact other less mediagenic innovations such as pre-concert talks – already widely used by forward thinking orchestras – are almost certainly more effective in engaging new audiences.

The CD will not be around for ever ~ The current ratio of CD albums sales to downloads is actually three to one in favour of physical discs. It may suit Universal Music and other record companies to hasten the end of CDs - no manufacturing, stock and distribution costs - but the format still represents by far the largest market for recorded classical music. As Max Hole acknowledges in his reference to iTunes, sound quality matters in classical music, and CD delivers superior sound to the mass market downloads. So if it ain't broke why kill it?

The very buildings in which you play are often seen as forbidding and not places many people think they’d be comfortable entering ~ There is no evidence to support this assertion, nor is there any to show that alternative venues deliver anything other than novelty appeal. For some time I was seduced by the myth of music outside the concert hall and ran a series of posts about alternative venues, for instance classical music in a tent, in a supermarket, on a boat and even in a circus ring – the header photo shows the floating stage used by the American Wind Orchestra, I took the photo below in a hypermarket in France and the footer photo of the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra in the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome circus arena. So I have been there and done that; but now, in the absence of enduring success stories, I must conclude that orchestras would be better directing their diminishing resources to the in-concert hall experience. This was supported by a recent post which reported how an orchestra boosted ticket sales by $23,000 in a conventional concert hall venue using the evolving art of photochoreography, while kinetic art experiments are also producing encouraging results. Of course there is a role for outreach in venues such as schools. But that is very different to Max Hole's unqualified exhortation for orchestras to "get out of the concert hall".



Universal music has launched the Sinfini website which takes the jargon out of the genre ~ There is no evidence that blanding-out classical music attracts new audiences. But hard data shows that classical music has lost one million from its radio audience in the UK as a result of blanding-out. Moreover there is no evidence that dumbed-down websites attract a new audience. But there is hard data that this approach is a turn-off to readers – the circulation of the dumbed-down Gramophone magazine crashed by 66% and it has failed to gain traction as an online publication. Data from On An Overgrown Path – which has a not insubstantial readership – is illuminating. Last week I ran a post that was most definitely dumbed-up and was rich in references to music from obscure names such as Louis Andriessen, Guillaume Connesson and Edith Canat de Chizy. That post attracted one of the largest readerships in the eight year history of the website, and its very large social media reach extended far beyond the core classical audience - here is the evidence.

There are too many “clap here, not there” protocols to abide by ~ Again no evidence at all that allowing the audience to become part of the performance expands the reach of the music. But there is clear evidence of an opportunity cost, as percussion virtuoso Colin Currie explains "It was the National Youth Orchestra's performance of Messiaen's 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie [at the 2012 BBC Proms]. When applause burst out several seconds after the eccentric conclusion to the first movement, I feared the very worst. And indeed it was so, with increasingly awkward applause after each of the successive movements despite the often ambiguous and contemplative nature of many of the movements and their conclusions."

My second concern is that Max Hole overlooks the vitally important need to test and prove the validity of his recommended actions before they are implemented across the board. With the examples above I have showed how difficult - or impossible – it is to support his recommended actions by case studies of successful implementation. Which means his recommendations are no more than personal hunches that need testing. So by all means let’s do A/B testing of concert dress versus undress, let’s experiment with concerts in alternative venues and track what proportion of the new audience is retained, and let’s do in-depth research of the profile of Sinfini website visitors etc etc, But let’s do it in a controlled and limited way until we have objective evidence that there is a net gain in audience. Only then should we suggest that every British orchestra adopts these big new ideas.

My final concern is that Max Hole ignores opportunity cost – the loss from the existing core classical audience – of implementing his recommended changes, and also fails to differentiate between net and gross audience gain. It has become fashionable to despise the older and loyal audience for classical music, and this presentation to the Association of British Orchestras is typical of the ‘like it or lump it’ approach to change. Of course we must innovate; but as BBC Radio 3 has discovered at great cost, if you change things, some of those that don’t like the change leave you. That loss of audience is the opportunity cost of change, and in an inherently conservative activity such as classical music it can be surprisingly – in fact disastrously - high. And unless there is a long term net gain - new audience gain exceeding loss - the whole exercise is an expensive zero sum gain exercise. Change driven audience loss needs to be understood and managed by orchestras, and there is no recognition of that at all in Max Hole’s presentation.

My headline poses the question Do classical music’s big ideas have real substance? As explained above I am becoming less optimistic about the efficacy of many suggested changes. But classical music definitely needs big new ideas, whether they come from Max Hole or someone else. However we must differentiate between personal hunches and facts, and we need to test big new ideas before they are widely implemented, because only then can we understand if they have real substance. We also need to show more respect for classical music’s loyal core audience, and need to understand the opportunity cost of alienating that audience. But, most importantly, we must recognize that the biggest and best new idea is the music itself. As T.S. Eliot tells us in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time



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Friday, January 25, 2013

Where late the sweet birds sang


Visited post-administration HMV. Love high street record stores. But my local HMV is a harsh and uninspiring browsing environment. There is no evidence of personal musical journey, no shared dream, no positive progress and no satisfaction.

Read Universal Music supremo Max Holes’ presentation to the Association of British Orchestras. Love new thinking. But he is advocating reactive innovation without support of statistics or successful case studies and oblivious to impact on vital core audience franchise. There is no evidence of personal musical journey, no shared dream, no positive progress and no satisfaction.

Deeply moved by Where late the sweet birds sang with Magnificat directed by Philip Cave on Linn. Love Tudor church music. But these are little-known Latin settings from Robert Parsons, Robert White and William Byrd in new editions by Sally Dunkley. As Sally explains in her sleeve note:

Considering and compiling this recording is something that has occupied my thoughts over several years. Both in content and performing style it represents the fruits of a personal journey that started at a time when most of this music was not at all widely known. None of us dared to dream then that it could ever be shared with the thousands of people who have now come to value it. Time moves on, and witnessing that positive progress gives cause for some satisfaction.
Max Hole, HMV and British orchestras please note.

* More on Max Hole's Association of British Orchestra's presentation here.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Classical music as an antiques roadshow

’In Spring 2013, as part of the BBC’s commitment to music programming, BBC Radio 3 and the [National] Trust will present six live concerts and a live drama placing baroque performance in its historical context. The concerts will be presented by Radio 3’s Katie Derham, who will be joined by the Antiques Roadshow’s Lars Tharp during intervals to offer a fascinating insight into the Baroque connections at each house.’

'Incredible as it may seem, melody, the absolute essence of Western music, has long been a mere relic for the immense majority of modern composers. This observation, obvious to any self-respecting music lover gives a fairly reliable idea of the tack taken by Contemporary Music Art, in significant accordance with one of the darkest periods humanity can remember in reference to Art and Culture. The indisputable fact that, nowadays, melody is nothing more than a scarecrow in contemporary musical creation shows the very decadence of Contemporary Music, which judging by the latest 21st century avant-garde is striding resolutely towards self-destruction, that is, the very negation of music in favour of an unintelligible sound language, completely alien to the venerable laws of harmony and at loggerheads with the primordial aim.'
It is not difficult to guess that the first of those quotes originates from the BBC in 2013. But, despite the reference to the 21st century avant-garde, it is difficult to believe that the second quote comes from the sleeve notes written for a 2011 CD release by a composer born in 1971. Spaniard Pablo Queipo de Llano is a self-taught neo-baroque composer, authority on Vivaldi, and member of Vox Sæculorum, an international society of contemporary composers dedicated to “the vindication of tonality as a current and valid language in Contemporary Musical Art” – yes, it really does exist.

The passage is taken from Pablo Queipo de Llano’s note for the new CD seen above of his twenty-five four part fugues played by Ensemble Fisarchi on the Spanish Enchiriadis label. Despite the reactionary rhetoric - Queipo de Llano claims Elgar as a “neoclassical” composer and cites Eric Whitacre as an “exceptional landmark” in contemporary music – the results are really quite appealing in a neo-baroque Vivaldi-ish kind of way; there is an audio sample here. With timings ranging between 1’ 54” to 3’ 33” the twenty-five fugues are a godsend to the classical radio presenters among my readers who want tasteful fillers to replace the ubiquitous Slavonic Dances and Debussy Preludes. Pablo Queipo de Llano’s Fugas are pleasant enough in small doses. But like Antiques Roadshow concerts and Katie Derham they are most definitely not recommended in large doses.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Before mobile ringtones there were air raids

That archive document from my collection details the concert played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler on January 22 and 23 1945. It was held in the Admiralspalast theatre in Berlin which the orchestra had moved to after the Philharmonie Hall was destroyed by bombs in November 1943. The footnote explains that on January 23 only the first two movements of the Mozart symphony were played. This was presumably due to interruption by an air raid as Berlin was under heavy attack at the time. In an age when a mobile phone ringing in a Mahler symphony causes a Twitter firestorm it is impossible to imagine what concert going was like for the audience and musicians at the time. Below is a 1944 British intelligence map from my library used by Allied bomber aimers for their night raids - the strategically important buildings are marked in black. I have added the Admiralspalast as a red square to show its vulnerable position: directly across Friedrichstraße is a major railway terminus, to the east the complex marked 14B is the Berlin military garrison's headquarters, while 53 to the west on Unter den Linden is the Reich Ministry of the Interior.


It appears that the near miss in the Mozart was the final straw for Furtwängler, because the concert on January 23 was the last that he conducted in wartime Berlin before fleeing to Switzerland via Vienna - his next appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic was in May 1947 when he gave an all Beethoven programme. But those two concerts were not the last played by the orchestra under the Third Reich. On March 28 - just six weeks before Germany surrendered - Robert Heger conducted their last wartime concert in a programme that included, appropriately, the closing scene from Götterdämmerung. The story of that final concert is in The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour and there is more on music in wartime Berlin in Furtwängler and the forgotten new music.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why louder classical music is better classical music


In the frantic search for classical music’s new audience the importance of dynamic range – the variation between quiet and loud passages – has been curiously neglected, possibly because the mechanism of hearing is little understood. If a listener is played the same piece of music twice on identical replay equipment at two different levels (volumes), he/she will judge the louder of the two auditions to be “better” quality. The explanation lies in the non-linear frequency response of the human ear which is plotted on the diagram below (source J.Crabbe Hi Fi in the Home). The curved shape of the lower line in the diagram marked ‘Threshold of hearing’ shows how as the replay level increases the range of the human ear increases, meaning that extreme highs and lows become audible; this gives the music more impact and makes it sound “better”.

The human ear’s non-linear frequency response is why rock music is compressed. Applying compression to music decreases the dynamic; this both raises the average level of the music and increases the level of bass passages making them more audible. Compressed music contains more acoustic energy, and as a result sounds subjectively better – see this resource for ten reasons why compressed music sounds ‘better’. Which almost certainly explains why minimalist music and Gregorian chant – both of which exhibit limited dynamic range - have reached beyond the traditional classical audience, and why the high energy levels of the opening of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra make it one of the best known classical works of all time. It also indicates that the much-vaunted commodity of silence is the last thing that new audiences want.

Coincidentally, or perhaps conveniently, the need to reduce file sizes means new media formats such as MP3 compress dynamic range. At which an important and crucial divergence can be identified. Outside classical music dynamic range is ruthlessly compressed, both creatively in the music production and technically in the music reproduction. But within classical music dynamic range is increasing via high-resolution formats such as SACD and FLAC lossless files, and by applying acoustic science to new concert halls. Just as human beings are creatures of habit, so human ears are organs of habit. Which means that over time our hearing becomes conditioned to norms of replay level and dynamic range. It happens particularly to untrained ears – classical music’s elusive new market – but also to trained ears, and this post was sparked by my own trained but also conditioned ears being disoriented by a new CD player which exploits the wider dynamic range of SACD replay.

My thesis is that the divergence between high energy compressed music – to which the mass market has been conditioned - and lower energy art music – to which the cognoscenti are accustomed - is an overlooked explanation as to why classical music is struggling to gain traction with new audiences. If I am right the outlook for classical music is somewhat bleak as there is no quick fix. Amplification and turning up the bass are options that have been discussed here previously. But they have limited application as they would almost certainly replicate the BBC Radio 3 model of alienating the core audience while failing to replace it with new listeners.



But the outlook is not totally bleak. Technology may have a part to play in the form of apps allowing users of portable media players to remix classical works into high energy mixes. But if there is an answer it almost certainly lies in the music itself. Composers have traditionally incorporated folk idioms as a means of engaging a wider audience; so perhaps compressed dynamics are the waltz of the 21st century. There are already contemporary composers writing high-energy music, Louis Andriessen and Guillaume Connesson – see CD above - are two that immediately spring to mind. Composer of the moment Edith Canat de Chizy’s overture Yell – see CD below - would bring much-needed energy to the concert hall if it was programmed more often, while works such as York Höller’s Sphären for large orchestra and live electronics – see footer image of score - show how the gap between high energy and art music can be bridged.

One of the problems is that the current obsession with accessibility favours ‘safe’ new music incorporating legacy cues such as extreme dynamics. Much bolder commissioning and programming of high energy music alongside the core repertoire would reverse this trend and may just engage new audiences, and if it creates some controversy in the process that cannot be a bad thing. What goes around comes around: dynamics were used sparingly by composers until the late 18th century and perhaps contemporary music should now be entering its high energy neo-baroque period. Nobody is suggesting throwing the dynamic baby out with the bath water. But new listeners hear louder music as better music; so if classical music really wants a new audience it needs to get louder.

* Header image shows Future Radio editor Tim Wilds and me toiling with the dynamics during editing of my 2010 Jonathan Harvey interview. That programme has taken on a life of its own, and it is now available on a number of platforms including Soundcloud and YouTube (extract), as well as the original Future Radio stream. In that interview Jonathan Harvey highlighted the need for classical music to drop its silly conventions, and the post above is another contribution to that valuable debate. My thanks also go to Andy Moore at Arcam for an illuminating email discussion about dynamics and music reproduction. This post is also available via Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were used in its preparation. 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

Monday, January 21, 2013

Who needs a conductor?


Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment according to that listing in the Independent's i edition. And if you think the omission of a conductor credit is down to a sub-editor take a look at the BBC Radio 3 website listing below. This presumably originated from the same misguided BBC marketing department which still believes that minor media celebrities wearing candy striped shirts attract new audiences. Presenter Martin Handley not only receives the fashion shoot photo treatment but he is also billed above the musicians, while conductor Adam Fischer is literally bottom of the pile. Principal artist at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a certain Simon Rattle and I have been wondering for a long time if classical music is asking the right questions. Instead of debating who will conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018, shouldn't we be speculating on which BBC Radio 3 presenter will front the new maestro's broadcast concerts and what they will be wearing?

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

A symphony a day keeps the doctor away


Prescribed self-help books are an effective treatment for depression is the conclusion reached after a field trial in Scotland. BBC News reports how patients offered books, plus advice on how to use them, had lower levels of depression a year later than those undergoing conventional medical treatment. A consultant in adult psychiatry states that the results show that guided self-help is effective and the health care sector should be investing in it. With music therapy gaining acceptance and advocacy for guided self-help increasing, classical music must seize the opportunity. In July 2011, following emergency hospitalisation and surgery, I wrote about the CDs that should be in every medicine cabinet, while another post that year linked classical music and the feel good factor, and a more recent one discussed how music therapy and other non-chemical tools can build neurochemical bridges between spiritual guidance and conventional psychotherapy. There are a number of composers whose music should definitely be available on prescription because of its life-affirming qualities; the symphonies of Dvořák, Martinů and Nielsen immediately spring to mind, and those of the little-known Albéric Magnard can be safely be added to that list.



Magnard was born in 1865 in Paris on the very same day as fellow life-affirmer Carl Nielsen. If Magnard is known at all today it is for his two final symphonies, the Third and Fourth, which are seen in LP versions above. What is fascinating about this composer of life-affirming music is that, like a number of musicians, he was a depressive. Magnard’s magnificent Fourth Symphony, which blazes with optimism in its finale - audio sample here - was written in a state of what the composer himself described as ‘marasme complet’ – utter depression. The symphony was commissioned by the Union des femmes professeurs et compositeurs – Society of women professors and composers – and given its premiere in May 1914 just six weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Four months later Magnard was dead, shot by marauding German soldiers while defending his home at Baron-sur-Oise, they then torched the house and in the inferno many of his manuscripts were lost.



Magnard is often linked with César Franck and Anton Bruckner, which is somewhat unfair as he has a unique voice that deserves to be heard more often. The symphonies are the best starting point for those new to his music; but I also recommend what is possibly his masterpiece, the sonata for cello and piano which is available in the excellent CD seen above on the enterprising Edition Hortus label. Ernest Ansermet’s account of the Third Symphony - photo 1 shows my French Decca LP version - thankfully lives on as a CD transfer, as does Michel Plasson’s EMI recording of the Fourth seen in picture 2. It was that 1983 EMI LP incidentally which introduced me to Magnard’s music. Hyperion has a mid-price double CD of the four symphonies in performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce. But, in my opinion, the best way to get to know Magnard’s symphonies are the more spacious performances in the cycle by Thomas Sanderling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra seen below. These were recorded by BIS in the late 1990s but are now available from Dutch budget re-issue specialist Brilliant Classics. The finale of Sanderling’s passionate interpretation of the Fourth blasts out of the speakers in my study as I write and, as always, it sends shivers down my spine. Current Amazon UK retail is £9.29 for the three CD set, which makes it the best value psychotherapy session you will ever experience.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. CD of Magnard's sonata for cello and violin was kindly supplied by Editions Hortus as a requested review sample. No other review discs were used in the preparation of the 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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I find no evil - but causes and conditions aplenty


Mali, Algeria and other North African countries have featured On An Overgrown Path many times over the years. The CD above from Tuareg-Berber band Tinariwen featured in a March 2012 post about the music of the region and the new unrest in Mali, and at the time I wrote “Despite widespread coverage of the Libyan and Tunisian uprisings, events in North Africa are otherwise neglected by the North American and European media”. More recently in a post about Algeria I wrote "But outside France there has been little interest in the anniversary [of the Algerian civil war], despite the link between the failed colonial ambitions of Western European countries in North Africa and the topical Arab Spring".

Now the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson has written “Until a few days ago, the vast majority of British voters had never heard of Mali (let alone the Sahel) nor could they - or indeed I - have placed it on a map. Now, I suspect we are all going to have to learn a great deal more about these places, what's happening in them and what our government might have in mind for them.”. My recent reading has include an anthology of writing from the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship titled Not Turning Away - see below. In it Melody Ermachild Chavis, a Zen practitioner who works with condemned criminals in California, describes how for twenty years she has searched for evil “but nowhere have I found it” but “I find causes and conditions aplenty”. Let us hope that the Western powers, when deciding what they have “in mind” for those African countries, take into account self-evident causes and conditions. My travels take me to North Africa again in March and I will continue to provide some counterbalance to the understandable but obsessive preoccupation with humanitarian conflict in the Middle East exhibited by the Western media and the classical music industry.


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Friday, January 18, 2013

Niche work if you can get it


Contradicting yourself is healthy, or at least that is what I am going to plead. So, having made an Olympic sport out of denigrating Twitter I will now read much significance into the level of Twitter activity generated by yesterday’s post about Claude Vivier. Rightly or wrongly Vivier is a marginal figure, yet the Twitter activity triggered by my piece surpassed that generated by articles about more mainstream composers. And it was not just the quantity that was impressive, the Twitter users that spread the word about Claude Vivier carry considerably more weight in my book than the self-styled cultural commentators who earn a living biting the industry that feeds them. But I really should not be surprised at the level of interest in that marginal post, because it simply confirms the mass market fallacy. Classical music is just an agglomeration of niches, and the smart way to sell it is to target the niches and forget about the non-existent mass market. And talking of niches, I will now contradict myself again and highlight another of those celebrations that are so often criticised here. Witold Lutoslawki – seen above – was born on January 25, 1913. I took to the road with him back in 2009.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Claude Vivier - disorder, chances and momentary beauty


It is fair to say I am not a huge fan of composer anniversaries, but one such event in 2013 does need highlighting. In these sensitive times I presumably should recount how French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier – seen above - passed away on March 12, 1983. But instead I will use plain English and say he was murdered on that day by a male prostitute who he had invited into his Paris apartment.

At the time of his death Claude Vivier was exploring a new and important world of sound - he was a pupil of Stockhausen but came increasingly under the influence of the French spectralists. However it is unlikely we will see celebratory cuff-links or very much of his music programmed this year. But the good news is there is some, and on May 2 the Philharmonia Orchestra are giving a concert of Vivier’s music comprising two works - Et je reverrai cette ville étrange and Trois airs pour un opera imaginaire. On the podium is the multi-talented and multi-cultural Kwamé Ryan and the presenter is contemporary music authority Paul Griffiths. The event is part of the Philharmonia’s Music for Today series, an admirable scheme which showcases contemporary music in short free concerts. But it does mean the concert is at 6.00pm, and serves as a curtain raiser for the main event at 7.30pm. This is the Philharmonia again, but for this one Jakub Hrůša conducts Scriabin, Shostakovich and Prokofiev’s as part of the Rest is Noise Festival inspired by Alex Ross’ eponymous book.

So all credit to the Philharmonia and the South Bank Centre for programming Claude Vivier. If we take the glass half full approach it is good to be able to hear Vivier, Scriabin, Shostakovich and Prokofiev under one roof in one evening. But my inner half empty glass questions whether one of Vivier’s orchestral compositions – Orion perhaps – could not have been programmed in the main concert instead of the over-exposed Shostakovich. The rigid compartmentalisation of 100% Vivier and 100% 20th century Russians is symptomatic of the trend towards ‘health and safety’ programming – no nasty surprises and no opportunity for serendipity to work its magic. It is a trend we are seeing not just in the concert hall, but also in radio and recording schedules. Themed classical music is hot right now, but is it really ‘health and safety’ programming in disguise?

It is probably unfair and ungrateful to complain about the two Philharmonia concerts specifically, and I hope to be at one of them – no prizes for guessing which. But in her immensely stimulating book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists Kay Larson quotes from one of Cage’s public talks. His words could equally have come from Claude Vivier, and classical music programmers should take note of them – ‘Art should not be different from life, with its accidents and chances and variety and disorder and momentary beauty’.


* More on Claude Vivier and the CD seen above in Pushing the classical envelope.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bach triumphs over bite


Our outside thermometer here in Norfolk, UK plunged to minus 10.9 degrees Celsius last night. But with Jordi Savall's heart-warming new recording of the B minor Mass on the stereo who cares?

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Goodbye HMV and hello digital era

People long for the light, and that’s what the books in my store do. They shed light in time of darkness. That’s why a bookstore is the place where heaven and earth meet.
Those are the words of George Whitman, founder of the famous Shakespeare & Co bookstore in Paris, and I took that photo of his store a couple of years ago. Today comes the news that the HMV music retail chain in the UK is appointing an administrator. In recent years HMV stopped taking classical music seriously, but for many of us serendipitous discoveries in their flagship Oxford Street store were part of our musical education. As self-appointed cultural commentators speculate on who will head the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018 we are told to step into the digital era and stop buying CDs. But what will classical music look like in 2018? Are we right to accept the loss of bricks and mortar retailers and the death of the CD as an inevitable consequence of new technologies? Are we confusing progress with intellectual property monopoly? Have eBooks established a restrictive business model that recorded classical music will be forced to adopt? Will a proprietary Amazon music download format join Apple’s iTunes? Will Amazon become a record label as well as a book publisher? Will the hegemony of the online retailers soon be complete? In the future will an alliance of Amazon and Apple decide who conducts the Berlin Philharmonic – just as today the legacy record companies dictate who conducts the Vienna Philharmonic’s new year’s day concert? Will heaven and earth ever meet online? Is classical music asking the right questions?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Quote comes via The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. 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

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Listening with the ears of the heart

The room in which this book is being read is filled with radio waves bearing every kind of programme from all parts of the world. To become aware of what is present one must construct an efficient receiver, select adequately, and receive in an unadulterated form which is not complicated by alien oscillations.
That quote from Husein Rofé's The Path of Subud dates from 1959 but provides food for thought in our age of mobile computing. Rofé was an early advocate of the Subud Movement, a tradition founded by the Indonesian teacher Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo in the 1920s. Subud sprang from esoteric Islam - as did Sufism - but it also embraces elements of Buddhism and shares aspects of Gurdieff's 'Work'. Today Subud is a global ecunemical movement following the ancient tradition of seeking internal enlightenment - gnosis - as opposed to depending on externally imposed dogma.

Recent experiments with fine tuning my personal receiver and selecting adequately have led me to the music of contemporary French composer Edith Canat de Chizy who first appeared here in my post about the fifteenth century alchemist and serial child abuser Gilles de Rais. Writing about the recording of Edith Canat de Chizy's music seen above - which includes her violin and cello concertos - a MusicWeb International reviewer wrote "This is one of the finest releases I have recently come across... such music of great beauty and of great communicative power came to me as a revelation... a wonderful release which I urge you to investigate" - an opinion which I can only endorse.

Sufism teaches seeing with the 'eyes of the heart', and Edith Canat de Chizy - who to my knowledge she has no links with Sufism or Subud - has that rare ability to hear with the ears of the heart. Two works on the CD have overt spiritual connections - the title of Siloël for 12 solo strings refers to the Angel of Energy in the Hebraic tradition, while her violin concerto Exultet takes its title from the Latin text sung on Easter night in the Roman rite. In an interview in the CD booklet the composer talks of her music being "spiritually inspired", and in the MusicWeb review Hubert Culot describes how her music's often strong religious basis "may – to a certain extent – call Messiaen to mind". The final work on the disc is Edith Canat de Chizy's cello concerto Moïra played by Sonia Wieder-Atherton with the Philarmonie de Lorraine conducted by Pascal Rophé. Little more needs to be said other than quoting Hubert Culot opinion that "Moïra is, with Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, one of the finest cello concertos of the late 20th Century, and an unquestioned masterpiece".


Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were involved in the preparation of this review - The Path of Subud was found in the Norwich Oxfam shop! Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, January 11, 2013

Goodbye to Berlin

‘A master of Balinese dance once expressed the idea that a performer must consciously see himself as a channel between the world within and the world outside. If the ego gets in the way, the channelling is reduced.’
That will most definitely be my only comment about Simon Rattle’s departure from the Berlin Philharmonic and the speculation surrounding his successor. The quote comes from Living Presence by Kabir Edmund Helminski; the author is a Sufi teacher but his wisdom spans several esoteric traditions – as Jan Garbarek observed “I live in a spiritual neighbourhood around the world”. Benjamin Britten was one of a number of musicians whose spiritual neighbourhood included Bali, and I wrote about that connection in Britten’s passion for the East. Another was Colin Mcphee who took the header photo of a child dancer in Bali. McPhee was a friend of Britten and the two composers recorded McPhee's transcription of Balinese ceremonial music for two pianos in New York in 1940. Four years earlier McPhee had written the important and overlooked proto-minimalist Tabuh-Tabuhan for orchestra and two pianos. The introspective nature of composer anniversaries is confirmed by the notably unproductive results of a Google search for 'Britten centenary Colin McPhee', although the results do link to my previously mentioned article about Britten and the East. But no problems, there is much more in my 2007 post Colin McPhee - East meets West.

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Pricey Grimes

Monday 17 June 2013 Aldeburgh Festival Grimes on the Beach... Tim Albery directs an outdoor realisation of Peter Grimes that places the audience directly in its setting – on the beach... The same musical team as the concerts will perform with the singers amplified and the orchestra recorded from the earlier Festival concerts... Please note this performance is outdoors, uncovered and most of the audience will be seated on the beach. There will be limited bench seating... In the event of severe weather, the performance may have to be postponed to the following evening... Bench seating £75 Sitting on the shingle £50, £40, £20 - from 2013 Aldeburgh Festival brochure.
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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Messiaen takes a trip


Examples of erroneous classical music metadata abound. In a recent post I noted how Amazon categorises Edith Canat de Chizy’s lyric drama Tombeau de Gilles de Rais as ‘Classic Rock’. And now I notice that Keith Jarrett’s improvisations for solo organ Hymns - Spheres is listed by them under ‘Concertos for orchestra’. In a 2011 post about ECM’s CD release of Spheres I wrote “it is a mystery why the label have never transferred the complete original [LP] release to CD as, for me, it is one of the best things Keith Jarrett has ever done”. Now ECM have done the right thing and re-released the complete Hymns - Spheres on 2 CDs, restoring the English Hymnal meets Gurdjieff Hymns that bookend Jarrett’s ‘Messiaen takes a trip’ improvisations in Spheres. Recorded in 1976 on the larger of the two Joseph Riell baroque organs at the Benedictine Ottobueren Abbey in Bavaria, Hymns - Spheres saw Jarrett breaking all the rules and creating new sounds by pulling organ stops part way out. Sonically the recording is still a stunner; but back in 1976 it received mixed reviews, with Jarrett lamenting “The ones in America were maybe some of the most stupid… bad reviews they were, most of them, like, ‘It doesn’t swing’”. Hymns - Spheres may not swing, but it’s a helluva trip. Talking of which, Elgar goes outrageous here.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. Hymns - Spheres was a requested review sample. Quote is from Keith Jarrett: the Man and His Music by Ian Carr. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The lady is a record producer


EMI's Vernon Handley Icon five CD set is truly a box of delights. Among the many and varied pleasures is the appearance of Beatrix Musker as producer of Tod's recording of Sir Arthur Bliss' Edinburgh overture with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. There have been some notable women producers working in classical music - Mercury's Wilma Cozart Fine immediately springs to mind. But, like much else in the industry, producing and engineering classical records remains male dominated. Beatrix Musker was assistant to illustrious EMI staff producer Christopher Bishop in the 1970s and worked with him on many great recordings with artists such as Sir Adrian Boult. After Christopher Bishop moved on to manage the Philharmonia and then Royal Scottish National Orchestra Beatrix produced a number of recordings for EMI including the Bliss. Tod was something of a lady's man and would have approved wholeheartedly of her appearance in EMI's retrospective of his career. And I can't help noticing that my first mention of the Icon set came in a trenchant post following George Entwistle's appointment as director general of the BBC. Well, Entwistle lasted just fifty-four days in the job, for which he was paid £450,000. Tod Handley never received his just rewards in his lifetime, but his name will live on for a hell of a lot longer than that of a failed BBC mandarin.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The silences of sound

'A biologist has suggested that dolphins communicate with each other not through sound itself but through the length of the silences between individual sounds.'
That comes from Toru Takemitsu's programme note for his November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra, which was a New York Philharmonic commission in 1967. More silences of sound here.

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