Thursday, February 28, 2013

Classical music should swap entertainment for wisdom


Yesterday’s trenchant post about Michael Berkeley’s BBC Radio 3 programme prompted me to listen again to the magnificent sounding Lyrita CD of his father’s music seen above. In common with many other composers, Lennox Berkeley's music is neglected not because it lacks merit, but because the industry power brokers do not see him as a commercial opportunity. Today he is usually remembered for his relationship with Benjamin Britten, but there is much else worth noting. He was an influential teacher whose pupils included David Bedford, Richard Rodney Bennett, William Mathias, Nicholas Maw and John Tavener. Berkeley’s own teacher was Nadia Boulanger who was also instrumental in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. In turn Berkeley encouraged John Tavener to embrace the Roman rite, which started the long journey via the Orthodox Church which ultimately led Tavener to the perennialism of René Guénon.

Although the Lyrita CD does not contain any music that is remotely 'sacred', in the sleeve note Berkeley’s biographer Peter Dickinson talks of the composer’s "profound religious faith which made everything [he] wrote religious". Lennox Berkeley was just one of many contemporary composers influenced by the perennial wisdom - sophia perennis - that is shared by all the great faith traditions; John Cage’s links to Zen Buddhism are common knowledge, but the Deo gratias annotation on the score of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen is less well known. In fact it would be easier to list the contemporary composers not influenced in some way by perennial wisdom; the definition of which extends far beyond the understandably discredited established churches to include diverse esoteric traditions. Yet classical music remains in denial about its congruence with the ineffable, and instead actively aligns itself with secular materialism. Which is yet another example of the entertainment fallacy leading classical music in completely the wrong direction.

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).

I design gardens with music

Bob, you'll find a link in my latest post to a charming BBC Radio 3 documentary on Takemitsu which was broadcast a few years ago. In case you missed it then, I recommend it. It briefly restored my faith in Radio 3.
That email was sent by David Derrick and the headline quote comes from Toru Takemitsu who appeared here recently in Remixing Japan. My header photo was taken in Les Jardins du Loriot, Venansault, France and featured in another post that mixes music and gardens.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Is no one prepared to oppose dumbing-down?


News comes that composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley has been made a peer in the House of Lords – that is him with his father Lennox on the Chandos CD above. I used to be a big fan of BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions programme which he presents, and in the past have written here in praise of it. But the programme has fallen victim to the BBC’s ‘dumb or die’ policy and now features Michael Berkeley indulging expendable media celebrities whose tastes in music are more Radio 2 than 3. Which means I - and probably a lot of other people - no longer listen to it. Is no one prepared to oppose dumbing-down?

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).

Whatever happened to vexation?


Finding the right balance between adoration and confrontation is not easy. So it was pleasing to see a recent tweet describing On An Overgrown Path as “agreeably vexed”. And watching last night’s BBC Four TV documentary smoothing its way through late-20th century music while camera-checking every possible media-friendly minor celebrity in the process, it struck me that classical music might reach that elusive new audience if it was rather more vexed. Portrait by Santiago Rusiñol shows Eric Satie who influenced 20th century music with his agreeable Vexations.

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).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

People who don’t listen to classical music are not stupid

“people who don’t listen to classical music” doesn’t mean “stupid jungle camp watchers”. There is space between, filled with great people!
That tweet came from Sven Helbig whose Pocket Symphonies sparked a recent post. Sven makes a very good point, but the currently fashionable condescending classics and TV reality shows will not enthuse those great people. There is a lot to learn from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s film scores as captured on the 1972 LP above – music that is neither easy nor difficult.

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).

Monday, February 25, 2013

Classical musicians behaving inappropriately

For the first performance of John Tavener's The Cappermakers at Charleston Manor in 1964, students from the Royal Academy and the Royal College were bolstered by professionals. Tavener himself conducted, and Francis Steiner took the prominent piano part in the ensemble, which consisted otherwise of woodwind, horn, trumpet, harp and string quintet. The chorus was the St Christopher Singers, who also provided the male trio to sing the part of Christ. One solo tenor and one baritone shared the parts of Lazarus and the four Jews.

In a volume of Stravinsky's conversations, Tavener had read the great composer's description of the part of Satan in his opera The Flood: 'a high, slightly pederastic tenor'. Having no idea what 'pederastic' meant, but assuming it was a musical term, and loving the sound of Satan on the recording of The Flood, John urged his soloists to sing more pederastically. One of them 'turned the colour of an orange', he remembers. During the next break in rehearsals, someone explained to Tavener what a pederast was.
From Geoffrey Haydon's biography John Tavener - Glimpses of Paradise. Header photo shows Igor Stravinsky greeting Mistlav Rostropvich at the Royal Academy of Music, London in June 1964. Stravinsky was in England to conduct his Symphony of Psalms and Variations on the Bach Chorale Von Himmel Hoch da komm' ich her at the English Bach Festival in Oxford, and rehearsals were held at the Royal Academy. Mrs Stravinsky has her back to the camera, while the figure in the background extreme upper-left is the 20 year old John Tavener. Stravinsky's early serial composition Canticum Sacrum was a major influence on the young Tavener.

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, February 24, 2013

How dumbing-sideways shapes music history


Visiting Aldeburgh these days is rather like visiting the shrine of St Bernadette at Lourdes. Hopefully I do not need to restate my admiration for Britten the composer. But his elevation to sainthood is rather ridiculous and does contribute to the neglect of other less heavenly but nevertheless first-rate composers. Among them is Sir Malcolm Arnold, whose mortal sins - which included indulging in a dram or three and writing an Oscar-winning movie score - are more than offset by nine persuasive symphonies which share with Britten the influence of Mahler and Shostakovich. The impact of visionary composers such as Mahler, Shostakovich and Britten on music history is much discussed. But the influence of impresarios such as Walter Legge, William Glock and Britten – this time in his role as founder of the Aldeburgh Festival – receives little attention. There is little doubt that dumbing-sideways – impresarios exercising personal musical preference – did more good than harm when practised by visionaries such as Legge, Glock and Britten. But when, as is the case today, the power to dumb-sideways - or up or down - is in the hands of less visionary corporate moguls we should be concerned. My header photo shows the irrepressible Sir Malcolm with his biographer Paul Jackson (foreground) and carer Anthony Day. Malcolm Arnold's Second String Quartet was given its first performance at the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival months before Britten died. But in The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold Paul Jackson illustrates how the subtle art of dumbing-sideways works.
Arnold moved [publisher in 1965] to the newly formed Faber Music, set up to publish the music of Benjamin Britten, who had decided to leave Boosey & Hawkes after nearly twenty-five years with them. Donald Mitchell, who had been one of Arnold’s main critical supporters in the early days, directed the new publishing venture. To him, Arnold seemed a natural choice and ‘a great acquisition for Faber’. Britten was ‘delighted’ when he heard that Arnold had joined the list, but although he received copies of all Arnold’s scores that Faber published , the works were seldom performed at Aldeburgh.
Photo credit is The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold by Paul Jackson. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Eight hours of music for 'just sitting'


A recent post suggested that classical music should stop reacting to pressure from the instant gratification lobby and instead focus more on 'just sitting', and it is good to find at least one record company in agreement with that sentiment. Brilliant Classics has recently released a recording of the blind Spanish composer Antonio de Cabezòn’s (1510-1566) Obras de música. This celebrated collection of instrumental music comprises elaborations of liturgical texts, transcriptions of motets by composers such as Josquin, and Cabezòn’s own celebrated tientos. The performers are Harmonices Mundi directed by Claudio Astronio and this is the only complete recording; it fills seven CDs and cost me just £16.25 from an Amazon reseller. Ladies and gentlemen please take your seats...

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).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

This is the house that Jacques Loussier built


News that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are producing Chateau Miraval wine on their estate in Provence topically compliments my current thread of music and place. The power couple reportedly bought the nineteenth-century Chateau Miraval - seen above - for $60 million, and a previous owner was Jacques Loussier. He owned the chateau from 1970 to 1992 and installed a recording studio there in 1977. Studio Miraval, which in its heyday offered state-of-the-art technology, a resident chef, three apartments and a swimming pool, was used by Loussier for his own recording projects and also hosted many famous guest artists. Part of the Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Wall was recorded there in 1979, and a Pink Floyd wine produced on the estate subsequently became a best seller.

Jacques Loussier is best known for his Play Bach crossover albums. But in 1974 the pianist stopped touring with his Trio and six year later retreated to Miraval where he composed his Lumières: Messe Baroque du 21e Siècle – Enlightenment: Baroque Mass of the 21st Century. Scored for countertenor, soprano, mixed voices and orchestra with additional percussion, the Mass mixes baroque, classical, jazz and rock in a pioneering experiment in musical ecumenism. The countertenor part was written for James Bowman and the Enlightenment Mass was premiered at a festival of sacred music in 1986 and performed at the consecration of the new Évry Cathedral ten years later – an event for which Edith Canat de Chizy’s Messe brève de l’Ascension was commissioned. Despite the release of a now deleted commercial recording – the CD seen below shows the interior of Évry Cathedral – the Enlightenment Mass is today forgotten. Which is a pity; it has similarities in style and intent to Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, and both works are a curious mix of the sublime and what Harold Schoenberg described in a review of Bernstein's Mass as "fashionable kitsch". There has been a recent revival of interest in Bernstein’s Mass and with barriers between genres tumbling Loussier’s Enlightenment Mass also deserves reappraisal,

I have to confess to being a fan of Jacques Loussier, and after hearing him in concert I wrote in a very early post “if you've never heard Loussier live you've missed something… in a world where academic analysis and MP3 downloads prescribe our musical tastes we are in danger of losing sight of the importance of live music making". But in the same post I also wrote “my admitted ambivalence about Loussier has stemmed from a concern that his performances on record can get perilously close to 'elevator music'”. So back in 2005 I was grappling with where crossover fits into classical music’s big new ideas, and eight years later I am still grappling. Yes, dumbing-down must be avoided. But we – and that includes me – must also beware of dualistic attitudes. Why, for instance, does the Independent enthuse about a year of Benjamin Britten on the BBC but deplore two weeks of André Rieu on Sky Arts? The problem is the term ‘crossover’ has become a dangerous pejorative as reader Dave Harmon eloquently reminded us several years ago:

By all means let's encourage active and critical listening. But let's also acknowledge, without condescension, that some people's personal level of active listening will be satisfied by musicians like André Rieu. If they never develop an appreciation for Elliott Carter ... so what?
If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can produce wine and Jacques Loussier can play Bach, why can’t André Rieu play Johann Strauss?


Header image credit FR2DAY. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Music and place - the neglected dimension


Given its affinity with his perennially popular American Quartet, it is surprising that Dvořák’s String Quintet is not better known. Both the American Quartet and the String Quintet were composed when the composer was staying in the small Czech settlement of Spillville, Ohio, and my header photo shows a mural in the town commemorating his visit. While Dvořák was in Spillville he attended a ritual performance by visiting North American Indians of the Kickapoo tribe. We can only speculate on how the Quintet was influenced by the music of the Kickapoo, who are survivors of a culture described by Andrew Harvey as ‘voices of the first world’. But if that portrayal of an inspired Dvořák in Spillville is accurate, his Quintet was almost certainly the product of what Buddhists call ‘fragrant learning’. This is the assimilation of wisdom by unintentional absorption; just as clothing absorbs the fragrance of temple incense, so humans are affected by the atmosphere of a place from simply being there.

Fragrant learning by composers is a recognized phenomenon, with Britten’s assimilation of the atmosphere of the Suffolk coast into his music being one of the most celebrated examples. But ‘fragrant listening’, the influence of the listening environment on the audience, is almost unexplored, although the phenomena of ‘toxic listening’ – mobile ringtones and coughing during concerts – is well known. It is beyond dispute that one attribute of the listening environment, the hall acoustic, has a significant impact on how music is heard. But other more arcane attributes also have an impact, which means fragrant listening is relevant to the current debate about making classical music more accessible by moving it from concert halls. And given that music via mobile devices is the current big thing, and that music via in car web access will be the next big thing, it is puzzling that the relation between listening and place has been neglected. Two years ago I wrote that “There is clear evidence that classical music struggles to work at more than one remove. It is written for live performance in a concert hall and that is where it works its magic best”. More on listening and place here.

Dvořák’s String Quintet and Septet in delectable performances by the Raphael Ensemble have been reissued on a budget CD by Hyperion - if these works are not in your collection they should be. Header photo credit is Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra blog. 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). No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why classical music needs to be sticky


There is persuasive evidence that classical music’s big new ideas about how to attract new audiences are having little impact. But, despite this, the music industry remains locked in an unproductive circle which means that as one big new idea falls by the wayside – remember tweeting in concerts? – another takes its place. The whole big new ideas movement – as exemplified by Max Hole’s recent ‘vision’ presentation – is based on the dogma that over the centuries classical music has become encumbered with a multitude of superfluous protocols that are a barrier to reaching new audiences. This dogma is misguided: just as protocols, in the form of rules and conventions, make communication between network computers possible, so classical music protocols, again in the form of rules and conventions, make communication between music, performers and listeners possible. Yes, some of the conventions need revising; but the the big new ideas gurus preach that protocols are synonymous with elitism and should be eliminated. In fact non-music cues are essential to reaching audiences old and new, and their elimination is intrinsically damaging. My thesis is that classical music needs to adopt the opposite strategy and develop new and more relevant protocols, because they are the essential glue that binds the music and audience together.

Classical music’s rootstock is the notated score. However very few listeners can hear a score in their head simply by reading it. So the first communication protocols of musicians, instruments and performance style were created to play the score. But musicians need somewhere to play. So more protocols were developed in the form of acoustically acceptable buildings to perform in, and the advent of concert halls then spawned further protocols such as dress codes and audience etiquette. In parallel, the record industry developed its own protocols which reached their zenith in the vinyl LP. Here visual, tactile and knowledge cues were added to the music and twelve inch sleeves were adorned with seductive photographs of the performers and informative sleeve notes, as in the Mahler symphony LP from 1972 seen above. All of these cues gave LPs visual authority in the home and selling impact in record stores, and further protocols developed in the form of specialist record stores with knowledgeable staff and a pleasing ambience - see photo below of the Rombaux store in Bruges, Belgium - and a publishing industry grew up led by the Gramophone magazine of blessed memory. In the last decades of the 20th century sales of LPs and then CDs boomed, concert attendances were healthy, and classical music was very sticky. But then came the downloadable file, essential non-music cues disappeared and sticky classics were replaced by smooth classics.



Electronic commerce created the downloadable file, and the mantra of electronic commerce is frictionless distribution. Quite understandably the record industry has embraced frictionless commerce as it eliminates the costs of production, storage and shipping associated with physical discs, while providing the consumer with immediate availability and a robust and portable music format. But making classical music smooth by removing non-music cues – artwork, documentation, tactile appeal, collectability, retail presence etc – has generated an opportunity cost which is little understood and may explain why both recorded and live classical music are failing to reach new audiences despite huge advances in technology and intensive marketing.

The CD may well be a doomed format, but it does provide a case study that cannot be ignored. There are very few success stories in today’s record industry, but one of them is Jordi Savall’s Alia Vox label. Its releases are best sellers for specialist classical stores, its commercial resilience has allowed it to buy back early Savall recordings from a defunct rival label, and its recordings have won many awards including a Grammy. Central to this success is Jordi Savall’s policy of swimming against the download tide and making his CD releases stickier and stickier by exploiting visual, tactile and knowledge cues. He has refined the label’s lavish book/CD format over the years, and Alia Vox’s latest release Erasmus: Praise of Folly is a six hundred and sixty-six page book that comes with three hybrid SACDs of the music and French spoken texts, and another three CDs of the music without texts – see photo below. But if that is not sticky enough, each book/CD comes with a unique PIN that allows the purchaser of the book/CD to download the texts in six more languages and the music in superior quality high resolution files and MP3 format.



A different approach is taken by Chandos, another independent label, which has pioneered ‘Plug & Play’ hybrid releases that combine CD-style packaging with music stored on a memory stick – see below. Chandos offer the choice of buying FLAC or WNA files, both versions also include files of the vital non-music cues of artwork, sleeve notes, and texts, together with MP3 versions of the music.


These hybrid products from Alia Vox and Chandos combine many of the benefits of physical and virtual product. But this post is not a luddite rant, so it must be accepted that file only classical downloads will ultimately prevail. Which means that virtual stickiness will become a very important component of downloads, and this presents a particular challenge as pressure to minimise file sizes combined with the frictionless distribution mindset within the record industry is a barrier to making music downloads richer in content. However the pressure to minimise file sizes has effectively been eliminated by recent giant leaps in computer memory and broadband speeds, and there is a compelling case for adopting new audio file formats that give listeners a more rewarding experience for listeners by providing non-music cues.

MusicDNA, an independently developed file format launched in 2010 to supercede the MP3, holds much promise as it stores rich metadata – the Cinderella of classical music - and user-created content. However, despite being backwards compatible with MP3, the new file format has failed to gain any acceptance in the record industry, and the commercial hegemony of the MP3 and iTunes file formats almost certainly means that supplementary applications that link to these established formats will be the preferred way to add rich data to lightweight downloads. One leading linked solution is the MusicGPS iPhone app which was selected as "one of the top five of music 2.0 by the Guardian. MusicGPS creates rich non-music cues by adding who did what, where and when dimensions to music tracks - the where dimension is a particularly hot commodity in both the massive mobile computing market of tablets, smartphones etc and the nascent high potential market for in car web access dubbed 'infotainment' - see musicGPS screengrab below.


It is particularly concerning that frictionless distribution is being transplanted from recorded to live classical music. Max Hole may well be a first class ceo of a record company, but he has no track record of bringing new audiences into concert halls, and the ‘vision’ he presented to the Association of British Orchestras was based on the smooth commerce strategy that has caused so many problems for the record industry in recent years. Concert halls, dress conventions, audience etiquette and other non-music cues are all part of the stickiness that holds classical music together. Of course some protocols need revising, and dress code is one area where that is already happening. But the way forward for live classical music - like its recorded counterpart- is to add, not remove, stickiness. The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival with its sticky mix of live music, talks and all day events shows how this can really work - see visual below. And note that Alex Ross' eponymous book, which has done more to engage new audiences than all the classical music industry's big new ideas put together, uses contemporary culture and politics to create a single all-embracing non-music cue.


Pre-concert talks are a powerful but often overlooked cue for new audiences, as are innovations such as concert visuals and kinetic art – one orchestra reports a $23,000 boost in ticket sales from concert visuals. Non-stick websites like Sinfini are a sexy subject, but making printed concert programmes more engaging is not. So programmes remain no more than vehicles for stale prose and lucrative advertising; the example below for a 1938 BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini is a sad reminder of how little printed programmes have changed in 75 years. Concert programmes are important, but, as with recorded music, the future is online. Yet the use of social media by concert promoters remains facile and ignores how giving ticket purchasers access to non-music cues via a MusicDNA-style database could make concert going a much more engaging experience. And it goes without saying classical radio also needs to be sticky; yet the smooth classics approach of silky toned presenters fronting blanded-out repertoire remains the norm, and, not surprisingly, the audience trend is anything but smooth.

Well-intentioned but misguided people keep telling classical music that its conventions and protocols are the biggest barrier to reaching new audiences – or as Max Hole said “the very traditions and institutions that seek to celebrate, promote and preserve classical music are in danger of causing the genre great harm and hindering its growth”. Of course change is needed, but that change must build on what currently works, not demolish it. Classical music needs to ditch its smooth strategies and start adding new non-music cues that resonate with the technological and cultural zeitgeist. This is not a quick and easy task, and it will not generate the sound-bite headlines we have seen in recent weeks. But classical music needs to be sticky, and that is why it has protocols and conventions.


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)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

From populist roots to cosmopolitan modernism

Hi Bob, reading your Roberto Gerhard post immediately brought to mind a new release of the three piano concertos by Alberto Ginastera - seen above. Both composers underwent significant stylistic growth from somewhat populist roots to embracing cosmopolitan modernism. I completely agree with your assessment of Gerhard, though I haven't heard the quartets yet. One interesting feature of this Ginastera recording is the premiere of his early Concierto Argentino, which he suppressed and withdrew. His widow gave the (excellent) pianist permission to play and record it. It's delightful. The other two are strong and bracing. Terrific music. Best, John McLaughlin Williams
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).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Whatever happened to classical music’s long tail?


If you read On An Overgrown Path you will be affected by news in the French press that Harmonia Mundi are to close half of their thirty stores in France. Their boutiques specialise in classical, world and jazz CDs, and have provided many of the serendipitous finds that have given this blog its distinctive personality over the years. My header photo shows the Harmonia Mundi store in Nantes, where my many discoveries have included Abed Azrié’s The Gospel of John that featured in Klinghoffer’s Syrian Connection and also Ali Reza Ghorbani's settings of Rumi, while only yesterday I featured a CD by lutenist José Miguel Moreno, a musician whose recordings I first discovered in the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Avignon many years ago. Last year I started a post by saying “Harmonia Mundi's retail stores in France are veritable Aladdin's Caves for hardcore CD collectors” and I went on to enthuse about Joel Frederiksen’s Requiem for a Pink Moon. I discovered that new release in Harmonia Mundi’s Perpignan store and have never seen it displayed or mentioned anywhere else; it is music that has delighted me and I know has also delighted many readers, and these store closures will mean fewer such diverse delights in the future.

Many will defend the rise of internet retailers and the demise of bricks and mortar record stores as inevitable progress. But the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam taught that the tyranny of an idea amounts to a declaration of war against freedom of thought, and, in the same way, the tyranny of internet retailing amounts to a declaration of war against freedom of choice. Erasmus also advocated universal access to culture and education, and the arrival of cosmetically “independent” but record company owned and controlled websites such as Sinifini - which is “fully iTunes and Amazon-integrated” - is fast eroding that precious universal access. Progress it may be, but the closure of fifteen Harmonia Mundi boutiques means part of On An Overgrown Path has died.

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

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Truth is never in our homes but in some distant place

We are an old people; we wander in search for everything in far off places when it is so close to us. Beauty is ever there, never here, truth is never in our homes but in some distant place. We go to the other side of the world to find the master, and we are not aware of the servant; we do not understand the common things of life, the everyday struggles and joys and yet we attempt to grasp the mysterious and the hidden.
That cautionary teaching by Krishnamurti is relevant to classical music’s increasingly frantic search for truth in distant places where entertainment is master. My soundtrack is José Miguel Moreno’s recent recording of music for the eleven course lute by the German composer David Kellner, a little-known contemporary of J.S. Bach. Despite Kellner’s beguiling melodies coming tantalizingly close to instant gratification, it is unlikely that this album from Spanish independent label Glossa will be Sinfini CD of the week or win a Grammy. However, with average track timings of around four minutes these pieces can - like Sven Helbig's Pocket Symphonies - be listened to on the journey between underground stations. We wander in search for everything in far off places when it is so close to us...

Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples 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).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Classical music must stop reacting and start 'just sitting'


Classical music’s big new ideas of alternative venues, etiquette-free concerts, informal dress, straight-talking websites and burgeoning portable media are now joined by pocket symphonies. On Feb 22 Deutsche Grammophon releases Sven Helbig’s Pocket Symphonies which, to quote the DG website, are “Short, catchy and yet with the immensity and depth of the great classic symphonies, they draw on centuries of power and glory. These pieces can of course be listened to on the journey between underground stations, as they provide an outstandingly high-quality soundtrack for everyday life”.

Sven Helbig’s pedigree includes studying at the former Dresden Conservatory, and collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys, rapper Sido and German industrial metal band Rammstein. He has appeared at the digerati’s hot gig TEDx, and on this new album works with Kristjan Järvi, the MDR Symphony Orchestra and Fauré Quartett. Promotional material from Helbig’s management laments how 'classical music has a repertoire problem' because ’new music’ has distanced itself consistently from its audience’ and explains that with Pocket Symphonies he has taken on the task of reversing this trend; while elsewhere the composer explains that “As soon as one writes a beautiful melody which also reflects what one experiences as a contemporary artist, then an association with film is created. Many composers would be totally unnerved if their music were compared with film music. I, on the other hand, find that wonderful, because these pieces are little walks through life”.

Focussing on the music itself rather than on alternative venues and etiquette-free concerts is definitely a step in the right direction. But, for me, there are two problems with the Pocket Symphonies project and the first is the music itself. Pocket Symphonies belongs to the nebulous alt.classical genre and, for a composer who has collaborated with an industrial metal band, the music is decidedly unadventurous - in fact ‘film music’ is a good description as can be heard on this sample. Is going backward really the way for music to go forward?

Pocket Symphonies plays as I write. It is good that someone influential is focussing on the music itself, and Sven Helbig’s management has been wonderfully co-operative, which is something I admire as they must be well aware of my trenchant position on populism in general and Universal Music in particular. Some tracks such as the high-energy Urban Perfume do the business, but others such as Sing for the Moment are no more than derivative kitsch. So sorry folks, but overall I find Pocket Symphoniesto quote Denis Raisin Dadre in context – insipid. Which is not necessarily a deal breaker, because that is the personal opinion of a prejudiced commentator who committed the cardinal sin of sitting at Pierre Boulez’s feet in the Roundhouse in the 1970s.

Which brings me to the second problem with Pocket Symphonies - the fundamental error of thinking that big new ideas are the best way for classical music to reach new audiences. Of course we need change, but that will come from many small corrections, not from a few big ideas. In fact those small corrections are happening – for instance informal dress is becoming the norm on and off the concert platform. But at the heart of these big new ideas is the dogma that classical music must reinvent itself as entertainment, and that dogma is wrong.

Classical music is not entertainment. It is, and always will be, a performing art that shares some of its defining characteristics with one of the great knowledge traditions, Zen Buddhism. Within Zen the Sōtō sect seeks enlightenment by ‘just sitting’ in silent meditation, while the Rinzai sect seeks enlightenment by grappling with impenetrable riddles known as koans. Zen master Shunryū Suzuki taught that we find our treasure by watching and waiting, and enlightenment in classical music comes not from big new ideas, but from ‘just sitting’ in the concert hall and grappling with the initially impenetrable koans of music from Arne to Xenakis. In his recent eloquent tribute to James DePreist, Grammy winning conductor John McLaughlin Williams tells of how at his first hearing of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony “though I thought the music very long, I remember being mesmerized by what seemed endless paragraphs of sound”. In other words John McLaughlin Williams cracked the koan of a notoriously impenetrable composer by ‘just sitting’. And as Zen enlightenment cannot be speeded by shortening the time spent sitting in meditation or by making koans easier to solve, so appreciating classical music cannot be speeded by moving the ‘just sitting’ to alternative venues or making the musical koans easier to solve by programming ‘short and catchy’ pieces.

Art or entertainment? is one way of expressing classical music’s dilemma. But a more accurate one is Instant gratification or delayed gratification? We live in an age of instant gratification; but classical music cannot deliver instant gratification and any attempt to make it do so destroys its very essence. Research into delayed gratification such as Walter Mischel's celebrated Stanford marshmallow experiment links delayed gratification to age and connects its practice to positive factors such as physical and psychological health, academic achievement and social competence. Actualising those research findings will have far more impact on the future of classical music than applause between movements or short and catchy new music.

Doom mongers such as Max Hole – Deutsche Grammophon’s ultimate boss – delight in portraying classical music as moribund. Which is nonsense: I wrote recently about the Academy of Ancient Music delighting a diverse audience in a new and welcoming concert hall in the provinces, and similar affirmative experiences happen every day around the globe. Classical music is a living and vibrant art; it has evolved over the centuries and will continue to change in the future, and Pocket Symphonies is a valid contribution to that narrative of change. But the bottom line is that instantaneous musical enlightenment is an unachievable goal, so classical music must stop reacting to misguided pressure from the instant gratification lobby and instead focus more on 'just sitting'.


Pocket Symphonies was supplied as a requested review sample and thanks go to Mascha Litterscheid at Artist-ahead for her co-operation. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

He made a kid love Bruckner


John McLaughlin Williams writes - There will be many tributes to the late James DePreist, and all will bear eloquent witness to the complete mastery and great humanity of a musician who touched many lives. Unfortunately, I had no personal acquaintance with Mr. DePreist, but he was frequently with me, whether from listening to his myriad recordings (that of Korngold's Symphony in F# stands out among many high points), or from recalling my first encounter with his conducting and musicianship.

As a young violin student resident in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of attending many concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra. On one occasion my mother took me to hear Bruckner's 4th Symphony performed by NSO and conducted by DePreist. It was my first encounter with both. Though I thought the music very long, I remember being mesmerized by what seemed endless paragraphs of sound, all marshaled seamlessly by the conductor. My mother made no special emphasis of the conductor's race, but I know in retrospect that she thought it important that I see this conductor, this African-American conductor, working at the top echelon of music. Though James DePreist's race was (and is) obvious, that is not what has stayed with me. Nor should it; it is his ability to make music speak across that divide where silence becomes poetry that remains timeless to all who heard his music making. He made a kid love Bruckner. Which I still do.

A picture has settled in my mind since I heard the news. I imagine the shades of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Toscanini, Szell, Walter, Ormandy, Bernstein, Solti and Reiner looking up to see James DePriest striding towards them. They greet him: "Jimmy, great to finally see you!"

Thank you James DePreist. May you rest with the Angels.

Photo credit Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Classical music's most successful woman presenter

..the most successful of all women announcers – her personality is a combination of dignity and friendliness. There had been female announcers on the Third from the very beginning – Marjorie Anderson, and also Joy Worth, who had a lovely, slightly ‘ginny’ voice. You’ve got to be a very special woman to have a good broadcasting voice – the male voice is, normally, much harder and clearer. I brought Patricia [Hughes] back after her maternity absence. Later I brought in Elaine Padmore and Susan Sharpe.
Cormac Rigby, presentation editor of BBC Radio 3 from 1972 to 1985 remembers Patricia Hughes who has died age 90. That fulsome praise appears in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Envy of the World – Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, a book that also contains an anecdote relevant to the current dumbing-down debate:
Rigby recalls that Stephen Hearst [controller Radio 3 1973-78] did not initially share his enthusiasm for Patricia Hughes: ‘He took me out to lunch, and we were talking about reducing the starch in the network, and Stephen said: “My dear Cormac, you have to get rid of that terrible woman with the Kensington voice.” And I realised he meant Patricia, who was the most popular individual member of my announcing team, and I said, “You must be joking.” He wasn’t, but he was always a big enough man to rethink his own prejudices.’ Hearst himself confirms he soon came to admire her greatly.
Patricia Hughes is seated in centre front in the header photo. Readers who remember the days when BBC Radio 3 really was the envy of the world will also recognize from left to right standing, Jon Curle, Victor Hallam, Tony Scotland, Donald Price, Cormac Rigby, and seated left to right, Tom Crowe, Peter Barker, PH, Robin Holmes and Norman McLeod. There is a nice Tom Crowe story here.

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

Friday, February 08, 2013

I take your gold and now I give it away


Back links to my post Are top musicians sharing the financial pain? continue to prompt hate mail from within the music industry. Elsewhere it is reported that Valery Gergiev has been ‘defrauded by aides’ of more than $8 million. Not a single soul has remarked on the irony of how in these financially challenged times a conductor can amass that amount of money in the first place.

My headline is sung by Brünnhilde in the last act of Götterdämmerung and the header image is remixed from Wieland Wagner’s 1966 Bayreuth production of Das Rheingold. 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). This post is also available via Facebook and Twitter. V1.1

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Mediocre orchestras played divinely for him


Rewarding to see a Twitter conversation about Dean Dixon sparked by a thrift shop discovery of him conducting Walter Piston’s Second Symphony on a vinyl LP. Snatches from the conversation include “Dean Dixon was one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors…Pure genius” – “I can’t think of a single inferior Dixon recording. And mediocre orchestras played divinely for him” – “He was outstanding in American music and classical period repertory (Haydn, Weber and Beethoven)”.

“And mediocre orchestras played divinely for him”… how many of today’s lavishly rewarded maestros can that be said for? Coming to that would a thoroughly modern maestro’s management ever put him in front of anything other than an A list orchestra? That is Dean Dixon in the photo above; more on the maestro who mediocre orchestras played divinely for in Dean Dixon – I owe him a huge debt.

Header image comes via Sam's database of African American musicians. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Is classical music’s glass half empty or half full?


Half full – Roberto Gerhard’s beautifully crafted and wonderfully bracing string quartets played by the incomparable Arditti Quartet have just been released on CD by French independent label æon – the lower case is theirs not mine. Gerhard was born in Catalonia in 1896, and the troubled recent history of that region divided its many great artists into those who like Pau Casals rejected Franco’s regime, and those like Xavier Montsalvatge who stayed to work under the Fascists. Roberto Gerhard, who studied with Schoenberg in Berlin and Vienna for four years in the 1920s, falls squarely into the former category: he publicly supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and when Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces settled in Cambridge where he lived and worked until his death in 1970. His two string quartets are late works - 1961 and 1950-55 – respectively and the new disc also contains his Chaconne for Solo Violin from 1959. Both the quartets show Schoenberg’s influence but also develop Gerhard’s belief that “the basic stuff of music is motion, not notes or sounds”.

This new æon release is captured in positively visceral sound and comes with erudite sleeve notes by Malcolm MacDonald. The label is part of a group that includes Zig-Zag Territoires whose La Porte Félicité featured here recently. Other notable releases on æon include string quartets and trios from Jonathan Harvey – see New music in the paradise gardenHarrison Birtwistle and Edith Canat de Chizy, while a three CD survey of Brian Ferneyhough’s string quartets and trio is scheduled for future release. Spheres of influence seem to be shifting and æon has taken the high ground in contemporary chamber music leaving ECM to retreat to the less productive middle ground.

Half empty – Response to my recent post Do classical music’s big new ideas have real substance? followed a familiar pattern: large readership, little public support but no public disagreement, and some surprising messages of private support. Which is not surprising as the combined power of Universal Music and the BBC should never be underestimated: paying gigs for musicians and journalists are increasingly hard to find, so fall out with BBC Radio 3 and Universal Music/Sinfini at your peril. Interconnectedness abounds and BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright worked for Universal Music’s Deutsche Grammophon label for five years rising to vice president, while Universal ceo Max Hole dutifully name-checked the BBC Proms in his recent big new ideas presentation. And interconnectedness abounds and abounds - Aldeburgh Music, which partners with the BBC for the Britten centenary, has as its president Lord Stevenson of Coddenham who lists in the parliamentary register of his interests “Remunerated employment, office, profession etc - Advice on strategy is given to Universal Music Group”. And Lord Stevenson is also a director of Glyndebourne

But back to classical music’s big new ideas. New independent audience data from RAJAR shows that in Q4 2012 the BBC Radio 3 audience dropped year-on-year (Q4 2012 v Q4 2011) by 1.7% when measured by listeners and by 3.5% when measured by hours per listener. In the same period Classic FM increased its audience marginally, AOR network BBC Radio 2 increased listeners by 5.9%, while the total UK radio audience increased by 0.7%. Significantly BBC 6 Music, a station with a history of innovation that the BBC management wanted to close, increased by 31%.

It is beyond doubt that BBC Radio 3 has implemented a dumbing-down strategy. It is also beyond doubt and proved repeatedly by independent statistical data that the station has failed to gain new listeners and that its audience trend often compares adversely with that of other networks. On the balance of probabilities there is a connection between the dumbing-down strategy and the station's poor ratings performance. So a strong case based on reliable data can be made that dumbing-down does not attract a new audience. And, more importantly, a strong case can be made that dumbing-down actually has a negative impact on total audience size. Now is anyone prepared to defend classical music’s big new ideas with some hard data? Half empty or half full?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Roberto Gerhard's String Quartets on æon was bought at Prelude Records. 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).

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Classical music's defining differences must be respected

I have long championed the idea that for dialogue to exist there must be two different people. The fusion that effaces the characteristics of each participant seems to me as dangerous as the disappearance of biodiversity in the world today. The reduction of differences is, alas, widespread, on the pretext of making this music more accessible to all; but in reality when the micro-intervals of Ottoman music, its tempi and its relationship to time are not respected, the result is merely to make it more insipid.
That is Denis Raisin Dadre, director of vocal group Doulce Mémoire, writing in the sleeve notes for the newly released CD La Porte Félicité. The project from the French independent Zig-Zag Territoires label is a collaboration between Doulcé Memoire and the Ensemble Kudsi Erguner whose eponymous founder and Sufi musician featured in a recent post. La Porte Félicité is a musical dialogue between the very different Ottoman and European cultures that co-existed in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, and it juxtaposes works by Christian composers such as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois with music from the Muslim community. Denis Raisin Dadre’s point about preserving differences is relevant to the fashionable fusion movement in world music, but it is also very relevant to the debate about the future of Western classical music. The new orthodoxy dictates that classical music should remove its points of difference – venue, dress, concert etiquette, etc – to make it more accessible. Which in marketing theory – the discipline from which the new orthodoxy has sprung – makes no sense at all. Marketing is about building and communicating brand value, and the value of classical music lies in the very differences which are now being eroded. Is there a marketing case study where a brand has successfully increased its value by dumbing-down. Can you imagine Aston Martin redesigning its cars to be more like Nissans in order to boost sales? As Denis Raisin Dadre explains, when the defining characteristics are not respected the result is merely insipid.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples 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).

Monday, February 04, 2013

Music and sound rocked - job done


In the notes for the CD of her violin concerto Exultet composer Edith Canat de Chizy explains that ”The idea of ‘sound matter’ is very important to me. I started to compose after having been involved in exploring acoustic materials. I first came into contact with this matter at the [Paris] Conservatoire with Ivo Malec. So the starting point of composition for me was when I began to work a block of matter. I start with the raw material. I sculpt it and it slowly takes form”.

Classical music and acoustics are inseparable and there are also close links between music and architecture: Iannis Xenakis worked with Le Corbusier and John Cage worked with Ernő Goldfinger, Wagner specified a sound diffuser at Bayreuth to achieve the perfect remix for his operas, while Bruckner built cathedrals of sound as monuments to his “beloved God”. However the sonic architect par excellence was Bach, as a concert yesterday by the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr illustrated so graphically. Musically the concert was guaranteed to be auspicious: the AAM under Egarr are one of the best early music bands around, and you cannot go far wrong with Bach’s four Orchestral Suites. However the venue was hardly auspicious, a new municipal multi-purpose auditorium in Bury St Edmunds, a provincial town in the English home counties with no tradition of classical music. But when Richard Egarr told the audience in Bury last night that “you have a gem of an auditorium here” he was dead right. And he is putting his money where his mouth is by staying at the Apex - seen above - this week with the AAM to record the Orchestral Suites for Harmonia Mundi.



Built in 2010 at a cost of £18.5m on the site of Bury’s former cattle market, the Apex is part of a major redevelopment to revitalise the town centre. Hopkins Architects designed the 500 seater hall and in an inspired move the town council retained top consultants Threshold Acoustics to voice their new auditorium. Chicago based Threshold Acoustics has worked on venues including LSO St Luke’s and the Barbican in London, and the Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, while the pitched wooden roof of the Apex seen above contributes to the signature bloom of the sound and has resonances – in more ways than one – of nearby Snape Maltings. As if sonic excellence was not enough, the auditorium seating rests on floating air-bearing wagons that allow the hall configuration to be changed with power-assistance – watch the video here. In a reversal of current trends for multi-purpose venues, the American white oak faced and carpet-free auditorium is voiced in favour of unamplified music, a decision which prompted limited post-build fine tuning to the unusually live sound.

Classical music’s new orthodoxy preaches that acoustically excellence venues such as the Apex must be sacrificed on the altar of populism. Which is spinach: acoustics are part of the complex DNA of classical music which nobody fully understands – least of all those preaching the new orthodoxy - and we tinker with it at our peril. It is a pity that those who are telling classical music how to reinvent itself were not in Bury St Edmunds last night. Richard Egarr has declared that his mission is to bring the spontaneity and subjectivity back into early music; his direction is flamboyant and the Academy of Ancient Music musicians – brass and winds play standing – moved in the Bach in more ways than one. The Apex, with its light airy public spaces and views across the town centre is not at all forbidding - see photo below. Spontaneous dress code on and off stage was smart-casual and there were many young faces in the audience – the front two rows were taken up by a diverse college party. Early music on a wet February Sunday night in the provinces is not the easiest sell, but the Apex was almost full. And, most importantly, the music and the sound rocked - job done.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. My ticket for the Acaemy of Ancient Music concert was bought at the Apex box office. 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).

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Maybe we need to wise-up the classical music audience

I am 51. Thirty years ago I went to punk concerts, Twenty years ago I would go to dub reggae concerts or jazz bars; now I go to the Wigmore Hall , the Southbank, St.Lukes etc. I love the fact my life can progress as I age, I take friends all the time to these places and introduce them to the slower more mature and harder to appreciate pleasures of classical music. I prefer my fellow listeners to not dress too scruffily, and I like the acoustics of my concert halls.

What am I saying? That people should have things to grow into, to aspire to, that classical music is typically more complex than pop music, and that's what makes the whole journey worthwhile. We should not dumb down classical music, on the contrary we need to be wising-up the audiences. And not think there is something wrong if the average 25 year old fed on pop music doesn't go to classical concerts, any more than there is something wrong in the average 50 year old not going to pop concerts.
That comment was added by a reader to Do classical music’s big new ideas have real substance? Maybe appreciating classical music, like fine wine and whisky, depends on a maturing process. Maybe it is very difficult to accelerate that maturing process by anything other than music education. Maybe we are banging our head against a brick wall trying to accelerate it by empty gestures such as dressing-down, and maybe we need to do a better job of explaining that to funders. Maybe, as I wrote in the original post, we need to show more respect for classical music’s loyal core audience, and maybe we need to understand the opportunity cost of alienating that audience . Maybe I am wrong. But that simple but so powerful word ‘maybe’ was conspicuously absent from Max Hole’s recent personal vision for the future of classical music. Maybe there is a middle path. Or maybe Max Hole is sinfini wrong and all we need to do is wise-up the classical audience.

Header image is 1961 Columbia LP of Pablo Casals, Alexander Schneider and Mieczyslaw Horszpwski performing for President Kennedy in the White House; more on that path here. 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 etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.