Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Slipping off the harness for a while

The cowardly belief that a person must stay in one place is too reminiscent of the unquestioning resignation of animals, beasts of burden stupefied by servitude and yet always willing to accept the slipping on of the harness. There are limits to every domain, and laws to govern every organized power. But the vagrant owns the whole vast earth that ends only at the non-existent horizon, and her empire is an intangible one, for her domination and enjoyment of it are things of the spirit.
That quote is from the young, gifted and finally trending Isabelle Eberhardt and I am about to slip off the harness myself to become a vagrant for a while. But I dislike leaving readers looking at a 'gone away' post, so tomorrow I will park the blog with something chewier. Take care while I am away.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

What price Tippett conducting Tippett?


Tucked away on the BBC Radio 3 blog among the usual thoughts of Chairman Roger is a valuable reminiscence by the BBC Symphony Orchestra's sub-principal viola Phil Hall. In his blog post Phil Hall recalls how in March 1993 the BBCSO recorded Michael Tippet's Second and Fourth Symphonies for broadcast with the 88 year old composer conducting. What the post does not go on to explain is that the symphonies were also issued as the free cover mount CD seen above with BBC Music Magazine in 1995, but, to my knowledge - see correction in comments - have never been released as commercial discs.

As I write my BBC CD from 1995 of the Second Symphony plays. It is a spacious reading in which Colin Davis' insistence is traded for the composer's authority; the BBCSO playing is inspired, and the sound captured in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak is of demonstration quality. Which brings me to the question of why this, and thousands of other valuable recordings, remain hidden in the BBC vaults. In answer to that question vague references are usually made to contractual difficulties. But this has not stopped a limited number of archive recordings being released at almost full price to the benefit of rights owner BBC Worldwide - 2012/13 profit £155m - and of licensee ICA Artists - profit unknown. One of these ICA Classics releases of a BBC archive recording, Sir Adrian Boult's 1976 Elgar First Symphony, was described by me in an earlier post titled A highly recommended rip-off..

If it was commercially viable to give the Tippett CD away to promote another BBC venture in 1995, why cannot it be sold today at a realistic price? It would be doing classical music a valuable service if Tippett conducting Tippett and many other great archive recordings were made available for download and as CDs on a BBC Live label at a price that recoups no more than mastering and distribution costs - £4.99? perhaps - instead of being treated as tradable commodities. There is a fundamental flaw with the current practice of treating great classical recordings like cocoa futures. If the commodity traders misread the cocoa market, some more cocoa can always be grown. But if a corporation misreads the classical market - and let's face it, Universal Music, Warner, the BBC et al have made an Olympic sport out of doing just that - recordings of Tippett conducting Tippett and Boult conducting Elgar can never be grown again.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

If you want your music performed keep it short


Reader responses to Friday's post emphatically confirm that I am not the only one that does not ‘get’ Paulo Coelho. Which is reassuring, but we should not be complacent, because intellectual superficiality can be found much closer to home in classical music’s love affair with the über cool TED movement. TED stands for 'Technology Electronics & Design' and is the brand of the privately owned not-for-profit Sapling Foundation whose main activities are networking conferences dedicated to "ideas worth spreading". The TED movement originated in Silicon Valley, California and its events are now held around the world, with the global spread helped by the TEDx outreach programme.

Central to the TED format is a strictly enforced 18 minute duration for presentations, and there is a queue to join Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin who have spoken at the conferences over the years. Classical musicians are also in the queue: a recent WQXR article identified a top five of TED classical talks by classical musicians from Benjamin Zander, Michael Tilson Thomas, José Antonio Abreu, Itay Talgam and Maya Beiser, while Deutsche Grammophon's hot young composer of 'Pocket Symphonies' Sven Helbig lists a TED appearance among his credentials.

Charges of elitism seem to be justified as the recent sold out Long Beach TED event had a ticket price of $7,500. Charges of intellectual superficiality are more contentious, but have been voiced by some influential thinkers. For instance the Lebanese economist and authority on the uncertainty principle Nassim Taleb describes TED as:
“a monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers”,
while science writer Carl Zimmer attacked the presentation format in these words:
“In effect, you're meant to feel as if you're receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they're only talking about mushrooms.”
All of which has resonances of classical music’s big new ideas movement, and my discomfort with recent developments at Aldeburgh started when TEDx first came to Snape in 2010. On his own blog Paulo Coelho comes up with this startling revelation:
If you overload your book with a lot of research, you are going to be very boring to yourself and to your reader. Books are not there to show how intelligent you are. Books are there to show your soul.
That fashionable and dangerous preoccupation with not boring your audience is also permeating classical music, as I was reminded by the performance of Mark Simpson’s new work A mirror-fragment… at the Barbican recently. A mirror-fragment… is definitely not superficial, but its eleven minutes duration is evidence of a trend towards shorter new music commissions. For example, the eleven compositions commissioned for the 2013 BBC Proms - see note below - have an average duration of just over twenty minutes, despite that average being raised by three substantial forty minute plus works from the refreshingly diverse trio of Thomas Adès, Nishat Khan and Narish Sohal. It is commendable that the BBC is commissioning so much new music, but just under half the new works run for a TED-friendly ten minutes or less, with the shortest coming in at four minutes. Just as policemen are getting younger, new music is getting shorter. Are today's composers trending towards 140 note works? Or are these short works evidence of tokenism in new music commissioning?

* The BBC media centre press release for the 2013 Proms lists Tansy Davies and John Woolwich among the composers receiving commissions for the 2013 Proms. But these composers are not listed on the BBC 2013 Proms database which is my primary source, therefore any Proms commissions from them are omitted from my calculation of average duration. Clarification of whether these two composers are contributing new works would be welcome.

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All you need to know about Twitter in 100 characters


Alex Ross offers a pithy Nietzsche quote that is as applicable to social media users as it is to opera composers. In the same vein I offer these 100 characters from Dōgen Zenji, founder of Sōtō Zen:
Think three times before speaking and then choose to speak only in one out of ten of those instances
Also on Facebook and Twitter. Image of Zen monk first appeared in The sound is just following its own nature and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Alchemist of words or universal hippie babbling?


That photo shows Yehudi Menuhin with the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho at the 1999 World Economic Forum in Davos. During my frequent explorations of esoteric paths I am very aware of the danger of what David Hare, with scathing reference to Peter Brook’s style of directing, describes as “a universal hippie babbling which represents nothing but fright of commitment”. For me that universal hippie babbling is epitomised by the books of Paulo Coelho. As Coelho has sold more than 100 million books I must be one of the very few people on this earth with that opinion of his writing, and, believe me, I have tried many times to prove myself wrong. Last year I took The Alchemist to France to see if a different environment would throw a fresh light on that global best seller. But, alas, I found it – again - no more than a trite distillation of perennial wisdom that fails to encourage further exploration of those important traditions outside Coelho’s copious title list. In the continuing search for enlightenment I recently borrowed Fernando Morais’s biography of Coelho - which describes the novelist as “an alchemist of words” - from the library. I should have been warned by its “authorised” imprimatur and publication by the same multi-national corporation as Coelho's novels, so just let’s say that abandonment came before enlightenment. Am I the only one that does not 'get' Paulo Coelho? And strange to see Menuhin getting on famously with the former dabbler in hallucínógens and the occult, because elsewhere the violinist railed against “naked Beatniks of all sexes”.

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Does Jackie's Elgar really need reinvigorating?

"Our acquisition of the renowned labels, EMI Classics and Virgin Classics, will open up huge scope for us to reinvigorate our approach to classical music, starting with the development of a new brand for our activities in this genre" - Warner Music Group CEO Steve Cooper quoted in Music Week April 2013.

"Or should we not be protecting great intellectual properties from the ravages of the free market and safeguarding them for future generations by establishing some form of international cultural exception?" - On An Overgrown Path February 2010.
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The moment anything is a success it must be abandoned


Last Friday’s Barbican performance of Sir Michael Tippett’s Second Symphony received a thoughtful review by David Nice which ended with the observation that “Wherever Tippett may have gone wrong in later years – some would argue that he simply changed shape – he left us a masterpiece in the Second Symphony”. Which raises the question of how long should an artist stay with a successful formula before moving on and risking the loss of his audience? Writing of Peter Brook’s approach to direction – which is influenced by Gurdjieff’s ‘work’John Heilpern explains that “Part of the crippling nature of the work is that the moment anything is a success it must be abandoned. If not, it becomes set and closed – unable to teach anything fresh”. One of the four Buddhist noble truths tells of the danger of attachment, yet classical music is firmly attached to successful but set and closed formulas ranging from minimalism through authentic performances to chart radio.

Tippett’s Second Symphony is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but the composer had no attachment to its paradigm and chose to follow a path that took him to the very different sound world of electric guitars and amplified voices in his 1989 opera New Year. But, again, he showed no attachment to that hyper-contemporary paradigm and in 1995 composed his final overlooked masterpiece – I use that word advisedlyThe Rose Lake. This is scored for a conventional large orchestra, yet a perceptive LA Times reviewer described it as “music that goes beyond description”. In 1997 Sir Colin Davis recorded The Rose Lake with the London Symphony Orchestra for the sadly defunct Conifer label, and it was released coupled with the composer’s account of The Vision of St Augustine – my header photo showing composer and conductor is from the CD artwork. Fortunately the recording, which with production in the hands of Andrew Keener and Tony Faulkner is sonically as well as artistically outstanding, has been reissued by RCA, and at a current UK price of £5 offers a painless way for readers to decide whether Tippett went wrong after his Second Symphony or simply changed shape.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

In search of the miraculous universal music


Alex Ross has a noteworthy post on The Rest is Noise detailing a collaboration between New York psychedelic club The Electric Circus and the pioneering early music ensemble New York Pro Musica seen above. A post On An Overgrown Path last year profiled the largely-forgotten founder of Pro Musica Noah Greenberg, who died tragically early in 1966. In the following year his early music ensemble played in an Electric Circus gig at Carnegie Hall, performing “beneath a gigantic filmed projection of a fish opening and closing its mouth” – Norman Perryman please note - and later with Circus Maximus, the club’s house rock band, in a rendition of Machaut’s Douce Dame Jolie.

That collaboration between early music and popular culture is more than a historic curiosity. In Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa John Heilpern explains how:

Disenchanted with a weak and elitist status quo, [Brook] believes it’s possible to discover the miraculous: a universal theatre. If so the élitist barriers would fall. Theatre would at last become a truly popular art: open to everyone. For a piece of theatre would make total sense, regardless of language or class, wherever in the world it played.
Classical music also has a weak and elitist status quo coupled with aspirations to universality, but it has made the mistake of thinking that universality and entertainment are synonymous. Early music, which comes with less baggage than the mainstream repertoire, could just be the miraculous universal music. A psychedelic happening in 1967 may seem an unlikely pointer to the future of classical music. But remember that David Munrow’s BBC early music radio series Pied Piper, which ran for five years and 655 programmes in the 1970s, did more to bring classical music to a mass audience than all the current big new ideas put together. Is the future of classical music JSB on LSD?

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Smack the hacks continued


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Sunday, April 21, 2013

New music festival sounds a very flat note


My efforts to raise the profile of the Alchemy at Zahar Festival have backfired as I am now told the event was cancelled a few days before it was due to take place. The story sounds rather messy; reports are circulating that this is the second cancellation, that the required government permit may not have been in place, and that plans to run a four day festival in the Moroccan Sahara in 40 degrees plus temperatures may have been somewhat optimistic. There are reports of a reincarnation in Marrakech but, understandably, those that bought tickets and travelled to M’Hamid El Ghizlane last weekend are not happy – particularly the fan who travelled from Brazil. My thanks go to Frank Rynne, producer of the 'other' Master Musicians of Joujouka - who were not appearing at the festival – for updating me on the lack of alchemy at Zahar. Things are never straightforward in Morocco, and I was going to end by saying that next time I’ll go with the flow and stick to posting BBC press releases: but then I remembered that in 1980 twenty BBC Proms were cancelled, also amid much acrimony.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot


In Big Yellow Taxi Joni Mitchell tells of how, in Hawaii, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. She wrote the song in 1970, and more than four decades later, despite soothing references to eco-resorts and sustainable tourism, "global hospitality company" Hyatt and others are paving the paradise in Morocco seen in the header photo, as this reblog from my wife's Facebook page explains.


We visited the Berber village of Tamraght in southern Morocco for the first time two years ago and returned this year to find the diggers and heavy machinery seen above in place of the grassland and grazing camels and goats seen below - the two photos were taken in the same place two years apart. Below is an extract from an article detailing what is to replace the beautiful rugged terrain we found and it will change Tamraght – not for the better in our opinion - but of course it will provide jobs for the locals which some of them think is a good thing.


"Dubai-based Samuel Creations has been awarded the interior design contract for the Hyatt Place Golf Hotel, Taghazout Bay in Agadir. Slated to open in late 2014, the property will be the first of nine resorts to open on the southern Morocco coast, comprising a further four five-star hotels, two four-star hotels, a surf camp hotel and an eco-resort. Taghazout Bay is part of the Moroccan National Tourism Strategy Vision 2020 The ‘new generation’ resort concept combines sustainable tourism with a destination offering sports activities, nature expeditions and culture for some 7000 future tourists. The seaside resort will include a variety of leisure activities and a high-end residential development."


Yes, the Taghazout Bay project will create much needed jobs. But, as Lao Tzu explained, '"Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime". Does economic progress really have to come in the form of Hyatt-filleted fish? Could it not come as fishing lessons in the form of small co-operative projects such as chambres d'hôtes, restaurants, artisan workshops and 'responsible tourism' projects that empower the local population and preserve a culture that will otherwise soon be buried under a giant eco-resort? Big Yellow Taxi tells us, 'Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got, till it's gone', and that lyric from Joni Mitchell takes this path full circle. Back in 1975 with my future wife I visited the village of Matala on Crete, another paradise that has since been overrun by tourism. Five years earlier Joni Mitchell had spent a blissed-out summer at Matala, where she composed songs for her fourth album Blue. And back in Morocco, at around the same time the legend of Jimi Hendrix had started to become entangled with filet-o-fish.

All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013 except footer which is from Brendan Hynes. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Rare bird - music festival with no Wagner or Britten


News comes via the Master Musicians of Jajouka diaspora that the masters are playing this weekend at the Alchemy at Zahar Festival. This new event, which takes place seven hours drive south of Marrakech in the Moroccan Sahara, replaces the Festival au Désert in Mali which has been cancelled due to the state of emergency there. Alchemy at Zahar is not quite as accessible as the BBC Proms: here are the travel instructions from the festival website.
The location of the Festival is not something that you will find on a GPS or that you should ask a random person about : M’Hamid alone is a really common name – The complete name of the town is M’Hamid El Ghizlane – where the 4×4 cars will await you, to take you on sand tracks to the « Screaming Dune of Zahar » (this has been its popular name even before the idea of the festival was born). This ultimate step before arriving at the festival area is a one hour ride in the desert.
Among the other artists playing Alchemy at Zahar are Aziz Sahmaoui and the University of Gnawa who featured here a couple of years back. And instead of Barenboim conducting the Ring there is Abraxas, a 'ritualistic Jewish rock band' from Brooklyn, while, as an alternative to Marin Alsop conducting the last night, there is Ahwach N Tferkhine, a Moroccan traditional group of twelve women singers who perform with their heads veiled by a single cloth. For those whose fantasies extend beyond Doctor Who there are the Master Musicians Of Bukkake who mix "heavy-lidded distortion" with "drone-led meditational spaces", and in contrast to Britten's A Boy Was Born Sonic Youth leader Lee Ronaldo plays two sets, one with his own band and one with the Jajouka musicians. I have already cleared my diary for the 2014 Alchemy at Zahar festival.

* Unfortunate update - New music festival sounds a very flat note.


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Are they being relentlessly fashion driven, or what?

David has left a new comment on your post "What do music industry awards achieve?":

The RPS shortlists seem bizarre to me - above all nominating the LSO for, what, playing stooge to Rowan Atkinson at the Olympics launch instead of lobbying (or getting Rattle to lobby) to show what they can do? And I couldn't believe the opera productions shortlist: I'm all for new opera, but that's all there is. Are they being relentlessly fashion driven, or what?
In fairness it should be pointed out that the LSO nomination for an RPS Award was not for their appearance with Simon Rattle and Rowan Atkinson seen above. It was for when François-Xavier Roth conducted 80 LSO 'On track' young musicians, also at the opening ceremony. But, despite that confusion, David Nice still makes several good points. More on the music at the 2012 Olympics here.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Drawing attention to music audiences should listen to

A good bookshop will display the titles they think you will read, but they will also try to draw your attention to those they think you should read.
That quote comes from a short piece in the Independent by Richard Hall. I was reminded of it by a comment added to my Sir Colin Davis tribute post by David Nice lamenting the absence from the catalogue of Sir Colin’s Tippett recordings. As for books, so for classical music, and, with a few notable exceptions, record companies, broadcasters and orchestras present the music they think audiences will listen to, without also drawing attention to music they think audiences should listen to.

One notable exception to 'comfort programming' is the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert tomorrow (April 19) conducted by Martyn Brabbins – a conductor whose adventurous repertoire puts his higher profile colleagues to shame. Tomorrow’s Barbican concert prompted David Nice’s comment as it features a rare performance of Tippet’s Second Symphony. With justification both the BBC and BBCSO take quite a bit of stick on this blog, but praise is due to everyone involved with this concert which is being broadcast live from the Barbican. I also notice that the Radio 3 website doesn’t contain a single mention of the presenter; so, for once, this license fee payer is a happy bunny; however that will change if the unannounced announcer proves to be Petroc Trelawny.

The header photo shows my LP of Colin Davis conducting Tippett’s Second Symphony. My earlier tribute quoted Sir Colin saying to me “Oh, you see, I don’t worry about status”, which is, presumably, why his photo featured so rarely on sleeve artwork. But below is a rare exception from 1974.



The uncropped image from this morning’s impromptu on the floor photo session is worth a look. 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, April 17, 2013

What do music industry awards achieve?


Last week the RPS (Royal Philharmonic Society) Awards 2013 shortlist were announced. As the entry page of the awards website explains they are presented "In association with BBC Radio 3". Elsewhere we are told "our media partner, BBC Radio 3, carry extensive coverage of the awards including a full length programme which focuses on the winners". And one of the award categories is sponsored by BBC Music Magazine, while the announcement of the awards shortlist was broadcast exclusively on BBC Radio 3 on April 11 - see header image.

From which you will gather that the BBC has a heavy involvement in the RPS Awards. But their involvement does not end there. Shortlisted for the 2013 'concert series and festival award' is the BBC's own Proms concert series, while nominated for the 'chamber music and song' and 'instrumentalist' awards respectively are the Elias Quartet, Francesco Piemontesi and Steven Osborne, all artists whose careers have been linked to the BBC through the broadcaster's new generation artist promotion scheme. And there is more: shortlisted for the 'creative communication' award is Tom Service for his book of conversations with Thomas Adès - Service is not just a BBC Radio 3 presenter, he fronted coverage of the lavish 2012 RPS Awards bash at the Dorchester Hotel.

Tomorrow (April 18) the programme for the 2013 BBC Proms season will be announced. There is no doubt that the excellent work of the Proms should be acknowledged. But let's hope that the judges for the RPS concert series and festival award remember that the Proms benefit from a huge amount of prime time promotion on BBC radio and TV. If that promotional airtime was costed at commercial advertising rates it would be worth in the region of a million pounds, and it is promotional exposure that is not available to any other major concert series or festival. Watch how much promotional exposure the Proms receive on the BBC between tomorrow's announcement and the start of the season in July; as a rough guide a 30 second primetime TV advertisement in the UK costs upwards of £30,000 and a 30 second national radio spot from £4000. It would certainly be very interesting to have, as a comparison, the value of the promotional budgets available to the other two RPS concert series and festival award nominees, New Music 20x12 and Sound Festival North-East Scotland.

During his time as BBC Director General in the 1990s John Birt introduced internal charging which allocated true production costs to programme makers. If he had also introduced the allocation of true promotional costs to programme makers, the Proms' budget - like that of many other world-class music institutions - would be massively in the red. That deficit would be despite the £6 million subsidy the concert series receive every year from the TV license fee - a guaranteed income that conveniently bypasses the Arts Council funding lottery. And let's also remember that the BBC is in the privileged - many would say unacceptable - position of both making the news in its role as Proms impressario, and of managing that news by controlling the way the Proms are portrayed in its own editorial coverage. Then there is the influence of the BBC over freelance music journalists. Does the 800-pound gorilla really need to nominate itself for an award for being the only 800-pound gorilla in town?

Yes, I know it is the music that matters. Together with countless others, the Proms were part of my music education, and there are, doubtless, many fine musicians among the RPS award nominees. But what do music industry awards achieve? Are the RPS awards the "independent and peer-judged...highest recognition of live classical music in the UK"? Or are they, together with the approaching Proms media blitz, just more confirmation that classical music is now controlled from cradle to grave by a few self-serving corporations? Readers will know which side I am on.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bird concerto silenced


So I finally found a use for all those unsolicited review CDs.

Jonathan Harvey's unsilenced Bird Concerto with Pianosong - which was not an unsolicited review CD - played by Hidéki Nagano and the London Sinfonietta with David Atherton on NMC is recommended.

Photo (c) On an Overgrown Path - another bird deterrent is visible in the background. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sir Colin Davis - farewell to a champion of new music


Fulsome tributes are appearing around the world to Sir Colin Davis who has died aged 85. In his later years Sir Colin was revered for his towering interpretations of established masterpieces, but his commitment to new music also needs to be remembered. He was given little credit for his work as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1967 to 1971 laying the foundations that his successor Pierre Boulez built on so successfully. Indeed, as the following list shows, he was championing new music well into Boulez’s tenure with the orchestra: among the first performances – either world (wfp), European (efp), or UK (ukfp) – that Sir Colin conducted with the BBCSO were Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 2 (efp1966), Walton Capriccio burlesca (ukfp 1969), Thea Musgrave Clarinet Concerto (wfp 1969), Hugh Wood Cello Concerto (wfp 1969), Shostakovich Symphony No 2 (efp 1969), Gordon Crosse Violin Concerto No 2 (wfp 1970), Kurt Weill The Lindbergh Flight (ukfp 1970), Malcolm Arnold Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra (wfp 1970), Malcolm Williamson The Stone Wall: opera for Audience and Orchestra (wfp 1971), Gordon Crosse Celebrations (ukfp 1972), and Peter Racine Fricker Symphony No 5 for Organ and Orchestra (wfp 1976).

Sir Colin’s advocacy of the music of Sir Michael Tippett is also particularly noteworthy: he conducted the premiere of The Knot Garden in 1970 shortly before becoming music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and his recordings of the composer’s first three symphonies for Decca with the London Symphony Orchestra from the same period remain the definitive accounts of these overlooked masterpieces. Another less celebrated aspect of Sir Colin’s work was his devotion to young musicians: just two examples that received coverage here were his searing account with a student orchestra in 2006 at Snape Maltings of Elgar’s First Symphony – close your eyes and you would have thought the conductor was the same age as the players – and his workshop performance of the same work with the Chamber Orchestra Anglia in 2008 – “Oh you see, I don't worry about status'” – where I took the header photo. The critics were divided about Sir Colin’s conducting of the Götz Friedrich directed Ring at Covent Garden, but his 1976 Götterdämmerung provided my wife and me with a memorable wedding present. Thank you Sir Colin, and it is fitting that you have now joined the gods in Valhalla.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Where 'goons and ginks and company finks' fear to tread


Things Gnostic, Coptic, Hermetic and Sufi take me to Egypt in the summer and I have been impressed by a new Naxos CD of music by the Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz who was born in Egypt in 1985 and studied with György Ligeti. The title work Native Informant – Sonata for Solo Violin is structured around a lament for the victims of the 2011/12 Egyptian revolution, while Jebel Lebnan for wind quintet chronicles the impact of the Lebanese civil war. Mohammed Fairouz’s rare commitment to relevance in contemporary music makes this new release notable, the incontestable merit of his music makes it doubly notable. Music and activism are closely linked in Egypt, and the princess of song Oum Kalsoum (??-1975) played an important role in the evolution of Egyptian nationalism. Arabic song is an important cultural tradition – three million people lined the streets of Cairo for Oum Kalsoum’s funeral – yet it is little appreciated in the West. Hopefully Tunisian singer Dorsaf Hamndani’s new CD Princesses of Arabic Song on the enterprising French Accords Croisés label may go some way to rectifying that. On it she performs songs made famous by Lebanese singers Fairouz and Asmahan as well as standards from Oum Kalsoum; thankfully the arrangements are devoid of the keyboard and guitars that adorn much modern Egyptian vocal music, instead Dorsaf Hamdani is accompanied by a small ensemble of traditional instruments. Both Naxos and Accords Croisés must be congratulated for venturing where what the old union song described as ‘goons and ginks and company finks’ fear to tread.


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Is all publicity good publicity?


Much attention is paid to the benefits of social media buzz, but little attention is paid to its negative effects. I would be the first to admit that I am an atypical sample, but my own experience may be of interest to concert promoters, record companies, broadcasters and composers. It is sad but true that my experience is as follows: when a certain self-styled cultural commentator and the associated serial re-tweeters enthuse about something, I am repelled by it in equal measure irrespective of merit.

Photo taken in Agadir, Morocco is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Some music bloggers will do anything for a good story


Philip Glass, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Maurice Jarre are all connected by this typically overgrown path to the hotel which was once a governor's palace seen in my photos. As I do not benefit from a Roger Wright-sized expense account, the hotels I frequent are functional rather than hip; which is why, as a rule, they do not feature here. But an exception just had to be made for the Hotel Palais Salam in Taroudant, southern Morocco. The city of Taroudant is located between the High Atlas and Sahara, and the resulting mix of mountain and desert terrain has made it the Hollywood of Morocco. Among the many blockbuster movies filmed on location around Taroudant are Kundun, The Sheltering Sky and Lawrence of Arabia - for which Philip Glass, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Maurice Jarre respectively provided the scores. After a superb lunch in the hotel's gardens we were left wondering if Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci or David Lean had sat at the same table discussing the previous day's rushes. Just think, I put myself through all this hardship for a good story when I could have been back in cold and grey England writing a puff piece for Sinfini Music.


All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. My trip to Morocco was entirely self-funded. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Channeling is trending again


Promotional material for Dobrinka Tabakova's new ECM album String Paths tells us that "the recording features... the Rameau-channeling Suite in Old Style for viola and chamber orchestra".

Do we have another Rosemary Brown among us?

Trending can be a dangerous obssesion and my header photo shows a famous musician whose channeling became a cause célèbre.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Where has all the diversity gone?

This awful business of making others just like oneself so that one is thereby “justified” and under no obligation to change himself. What a terrible thing this can be. The source of how many sicknesses in the world.
Thomas Merton expressed those thoughts in a letter to the Ceylonese philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy in 1961, and the quote comes from the recommended compendium Merton & Sufism. I have to confess to not being a huge fan of Yo Yo Ma, but his recent Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at Washington, D.C.'s chimed with the view of Thomas Merton and also with the theme of many posts On An Overgrown Path. In the lecture Yo Yo Ma spoke of “…an edge effect… where those of varied backgrounds come together in a zone of transition; a region of less structure, more diversity and more possibility”. The important point is that Yo Yo Ma is not just calling for more diversity, but he is also calling for less structure and more possibility. It is true that today we have more diversity in the arts, but the diversity is structured to the extent that it inhibits possibility – nowhere more so than in social media where the sickness of making others like oneself is measured in friends and followers. You are unlikely to hear very much of the CD seen above despite its diversity and possibility, simply because it does not fit neatly into any of the structures that define today’s fashionable diversity causes. For Renayate (Women) the Berber singer Houria Aïchi is joined by other Algerian musicians in a celebration of womanhood and the work of the great – but overlooked – Algerian chantresses of the past. It is newly released on the French Accords Croisés label, a record company whose entire catalogue is a zone of transition rich in diversity and possibility. More on Algerian music and Houria Aïchi in Music and politics in the garden of Allah.

With thanks for the heads-up to the NPR classical blog. No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

How classical music is controlled from cradle to grave

Increased choice is the mantra of the digital age. But it is difficult to square that mantra with how classical music is now controlled by a few major corporations from the cradle of music publishing to the graveyard of multiple record stores. In a post last year I described how the classical music supply chain has become vertically integrated with massive corporations extending their control back towards the composer and forward to the listener. One example of a cradle to grave corporation is the BBC, where control extends from deploying the world's largest new music commissioning budget and influencing artist career development, to managing the world’s largest classical music festival, the BBC Proms, and developing content delivery technologies such as iPlayer. Another even more striking example is Universal Music, where control extends from classical music publishing, through recorded music and web journalism, to online stores.

Universal Music extended its influence further last week with the news that the ailing HMV retail chain has been thrown a lifeline. This comes in the form of a rescue package by restructuring specialist Hilco with, reportedly, financial backing from Universal Music and other major labels in the form of preferential trading terms. Which means, in plain English, that the future of HMV depends on the largesse of Universal Music and a few other corporations. The fate of a moribund UK retail chain may be a parochial story, but control of the world’s biggest publisher of classical music is not. If you are still not convinced that classical music is controlled from cradle to grave read this overview from the Universal Music Publishing Classical (UMPG) website seen above:

The global leader in classical music publishing, UMPG's classical assets consist of the historic Casa Ricordi (Italy), Editions Durand, Salabert and Eschig (France), G. Ricordi & Co. Bühnen- und Musikverlag GmbH München (Germany), Editio Musica Budapest (Hungary) and G. Ricordi & Co. (London) Ltd. (UK). The Italian roster includes legendary composers Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti and Respighi, modern classics Nono and Varèse as well as leading contemporary composers Battistelli, Donatoni, Francesconi, and Stroppa.

The renowned French classical publishing group Editions Durand-Salabert-Eschig publishes works of Ravel (including 'Bolero'), Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Fauré, Honegger, Milhaud, Messiaen, Villa-Lobos and Xenakis to Aperghis, Dusapin, Manoury, and Tanguy. Ricordi Munich is responsible for critical editions of opera masters Meyerbeer and Mayr and publishes contemporary composers such as Goebbels, Nunes, Neuwirth and Poppe, as well as sharing the catalogues of Dai Fujikura and Liza Lim with Ricordi London. Ricordi London also publishes contemporary composers including Graham Fitkin, Rolf Hind and Iain Wilson, along with British masters including Arnold, Hoddinott and Rubbra from the Lengnick catalog.

EMB represents works by the world-renowned composers Bartók and Kurtàg as well as other pre-eminent Hungarian composers. In addition to its own catalogues, UMPG represents the Boosey & Hawkes catalog in France and Italy and, in select markets, other notable classical music publishers such as Chester, Faber, Novello, Schirmer and Universal Edition (UE).
Which means, in plain English, that classical music’s lifeblood – the score – is controlled by a cradle to grave corporation. Such is the degree of control exerted by these corporations that the most unlikely parties have chosen - or been forced - to form alliances with them. One notable example is the charismatic ECM label which very successful portrays itself as a fiercely independent maverick in a corporate-dominated industry. Yet ECM has a contractual collaboration with Universal Music and its predecessors that dates back to 1976, and today Universal subsidiaries distribute ECM releases in the USA, Canada, France, Germany and Japan as well as in smaller territories. Which means, again in plain English, that in many of the world's major markets Universal controls the crucial interface between ECM’s music and the listener. None of which detracts from the excellence of ECM’s output. But it is worth noting that in 2011 Universal Music issued a press release celebrating thirty-five years of collaboration with ECM; however the label itself is rather more coy, and in Horizons Touched, the official history of ECM, there is not a single mention of its long-term global partner Universal Music.

Although they are not all prepared to admit it, very few people in classical music are beyond the reach of the cradle to grave corporations – not even celebrated composers, music journalists and industry mavericks. Like the rise of the internet and the consequent demise of independent record stores, corporate control may be an inevitable part of 'progress', and more of the Sinfini Music-style of clandestine corporatization may also be inevitable. But that does not make it a good thing.

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Sunday, April 07, 2013

Lucy in the sky with classical music

How then, does one achieve gnosis, that spontaneous awakening which permanently shifts one consciousness? It can come unbidden at any time, through ordinarily normal activities such as listening to a piece of music, seeing a particular landscape at a certain time of day, or experiencing a sudden moment of clarity and silence into which something else makes its presence known.
That passage from Sean Martin’s The Gnostics recommends music as a chemical-free way of raising consciousness levels, and also reflects the recurring theme On An Overgrown Path that classical music should aspire to higher levels instead of regressing to the ordinarily normal. While travelling in the Mahgreb last month I was spontaneously reminded me of the power of great music, and that experience prompted the following notes on recent sonic flirtations with that elusive “something else”. Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa is a permanent fixture on my iPod and has featured in at least one previous post. Listening in Morocco to the fourth movement of the Requiem – which shares a setting of Taras Shevchenko's poetry with Silvestrov’s sublime Silent Songs – invoked, once again, one of those priceless sudden moments of clarity and silence. ECM’s recording of Requiem for Larissa comes with notes by Paul Griffiths, who is one of the few who share the secret of Silvestrov’s path to gnosis. Classical music has always been interpreted in the widest possible sense here and the double CD of Aleppian Sufi Transe from Sheikh Habboush and Ensemble Al Kindi led by Julien Weiss has also been shifting my consciousness. This is not music for the faint-hearted, and it comes without any fusion induced rounding of edges. But, if you are prepared to work at it, this performance by Syrian members of the Sufi Qadiriya brotherhood – seen above – will take you to places that Philip Glass and Steve Reich can only hint at. Sir John Tavener dwells in somewhat less forbidding esoteric realms and his later works distill his wide-ranging esotericism down to something truly approaching gnosis. If you are one of those blocked by Song for Athene I urge you to try Naxos’ CD of Sir John's Lament for Jerusalem in which lurk many presences.

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Friday, April 05, 2013

Apocalypse across CNN


While I was travelling in Morocco news came that the legendary Master Musicians of Jajouka are featuring in a CNN special with TV chef Anthony Bourdain to be aired in June. All these photos were taken during the filming at Jajouka and Bourdain can be seen in the footer image.


Apocalypse Across the Sky is the 1991 album by the Master Musicians of Jajouka produced by Bill Laswell with sleeve notes by William Burroughs. More on the legendary Master Musicians recordings made by Bill Laswell and by Brian Jones in my interview with Jajouka authority Stephen Davis.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photos are © Cherie Nutting

Another storm batters Aldeburgh

The Banking Standards Commission has asked the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to consider if three top HBOS bankers should be barred from future roles in the financial sector. It said former bosses Sir James Crosby and Andy Hornby were largely to blame for the collapse of HBOS, then the UK's fifth biggest bank, in 2008. Former chairman Lord Stevenson was also heavily criticised. The commission accused the trio of a "colossal failure" of management.
That extract comes from a BBC News story this morning. As has been noted here previously, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham is president of Aldeburgh Music, lists in the parliamentary register of his interests “Remunerated employment, office, profession etc - advice on strategy is given to Universal Music Group”, and is also a director of Glyndebourne.

Déjà vu

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Chaos magic from the cockney Wagner

A curious experiment was tried out in Queen’s Hall at one of those concerts when Holbrooke’s orchestral commentary on Herbert Trench’s Apollo and the Seaman was introduced. A screen was rigged up immediately in front of the orchestra, and upon it as the music proceeded the text of the poem was projected by a magic lantern at the back of the hall. It was so contrived that the reflected stanzas synchronized with the sounds intended to illustrate them, a sort of precursor to the “talkies.” The screen entirely hid the conductor and orchestra from the audience, a fact of which Beecham took full advantage, conducting in his shirt-sleeves and even at one point exclaiming in a stage whisper, “My God! I’ve the most colossal thirst! Let me see – ah yes! The third trumpet has nothing to do for pages. Just run out and get me a brandy and soda, will you, my dear fellow?”
On An Overgrown Path has been an staunch advocate of combining classical music and kinetic art, so it seemed appropriate to share that cautionary tale about quenching classical music’s thirst for innovation. It refers to a 1908 concert conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and comes from Arnold Bax’s Farewell My Youth. The composer Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958) - seen above - was a leading figure in the English musical renaissance at the turn of the last century. Although now forgotten he left much music that is worth exploring, most notably his trilogy of operas The Cauldron of Annwn inspired by Welsh mythology. In a year when no Bayreuth connection is being left unexplored it is worth recalling that Holbrooke’s operatic cycle earned him the sobriquet ‘the cockney Wagner’; although the perceptive Peter Pirie curtly comments that the nickname is “rather apt if no question of status is raised”. This path is one of several prompted by the discussion in Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney’s Hidden Wisdom of ‘chaos magicians’, an occult movement which urges its practitioners to use any available means to dislocate the consciousness from its customary moorings. Looking at the specific, Arnold Bax and Joseph Holbrooke were musical chaos magicians, as, in a very different way, was John Cage. But looking at the bigger picture, chaos magicians are the antithesis of the single composer fetishists who are currently perverting the course of classical music. In fact chaos magic is a neat description of my recent chance-driven listening experiments, and if classical music really wants to reach new audiences it needs fewer social media pundits and more chaos magicians.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Can you imagine Bach without the religion?


A valued newcomer to the classical music knowledge base is the Social Media for Musicians blog which includes posts such as ‘Finding your audience and filling your online auditorium: blogging’. Now let’s freewheel for a moment and fantasise that Rachel Ann Poling, who writes the blog, had instead posted ‘Finding your audience and filling your online auditorium: religion’. Disbelief would probably be the mildest reaction and outrage the more extreme - this despite millions having been moved in the past week by performances of the Bach Passions and other sacred music. And this despite hard facts - a commodity notably lacking in discussions of classical music's use of social media – showing that liturgical music is successfully engaging new audiences.

Clearly religion comes with a lot of baggage these days, which explains why it has become a dirty word in the arts world and elsewhere. Then there is the problem that much of the new liturgical music is created for evangelical groups, and Christian Evangelism has some uncomfortable links with the ‘religious right’. So nervousness about playing the religion card is understandable, but does rather overlook that the internet – the current darling of classical music – has uncomfortable links with child pornography, online gaming, phishing scams and other abuses. So let’s suspend judgment for a moment, accept that classical music and religion share a common aim of opening doors to another world, and explore an interesting case study of the power of contemporary religious music.

Today charismatic groups in the West are following the age-old Eastern practice of using an ecstatic mix of music and liturgy to lead their congregation through the door that divides the harsh reality of contemporary life from the better world beyond. One of these groups is the Gitans – gypsies – of France; communities of Gitans have been present in the Languedoc region of south-west France since the sixteenth century and following the French Revolution – which created a more tolerant atmosphere – Gitan families from Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia migrated to Perpignan in Languedoc. These were supplemented two centuries later by gypsies fleeing the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Just as the gypsy community in Perpignan is a blend of cultures, so their music is a blend of influences with the rumba, which came to Catalonia from Puerto Rico and Cuba, mixing with the more traditional flamenco.

Evangelical Christianity was introduced to the Gitans by a young Breton pastor Clément Le Criossec. He preached in the north of France in the years after the Second World War and went on to found the Mission Évangélique Tsigane. According to the Evangelical Federation of France, the number of Evangelical churches in the country has risen from 800 in 1970 to more than 2,200 today. Following the separation of the church from the state in 1905 Catholicism has declined in France while membership of charismatic movements has increased, and, led by a religious revival among the Gitan community, there are now eleven Evangelical churches in the traditionally Catholic city of Perpignan.

As Evangelical Christianity spread among the Gitans in the 1960s the traditional liturgy fused with contemporary gypsy music. One of the products of this fusion is the ‘Gitan canticle’ which emerged during the 1980s in Perpignan for performance in Evangelical assemblies, and my header image shows a recording of these liturgical works made for the French Long Distance Label by gypsy group Tekameli. Biblical texts provide the sub-text of these ecstatic canticles; but, in a reflection of the gypsy practice of combining their adopted religion with traditional Roma beliefs, the canticles also sing the praises of a free God that defies strict biblical attribution. This makes these canticles much more than a musical curiosity as it links them to the qawwali Sufi tradition of the Indian sub-continent, from where the ancestors of the gitans are thought to have migrated in the eleventh century. And it also links them to perennialism, the belief in a shared root among the great faiths that has attracted contemporary musicians including John Tavener, Jonathan Harvey and Philip Glass.

There is no doubt that Evangelical Christianity is an acquired taste. But beware of the canard that you need to be a churchgoer to appreciate the power of ecstatic music; C.G. Jung, who was no evangelist, said about his religious convictions in a famous BBC interview “I know, I don’t have to believe, I know”, while one of the great oeuvres of religious music, the English Hymnal, was edited by the agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is also significant that seven years after it was posted my story about the Taizé community – a non-evangelical congregation that uses liturgical music very effectively – remains one of the most widely read stories on An Overgrown Path. And Paco Peña’s Misa Flamenca, a work with many similarities to the Perpignan gypsy canticle, continues to be performed by a commendable mix of musicians around the world - see CD below.

At the core of the problem is, once again, classical music’s current obsession with entertainment – religion and entertainment don’t mix, ergo religion and classical music don’t mix. Which is both wrong and unhelpful, and there is much that Western art music can learn from these gypsy canticles and their backstory. For, as the sleeve notes for the Long Distance CD tell us, they are an example of the transformation of music from an artificial amusement to an experiential art that opens the door to a higher level of awareness and consciousness. Which takes us back to where we started. Can you imagine Bach without the religion?



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