Friday, May 31, 2013

Leonard Cohen’s showdown with Herbert von Karajan

[Leonard Cohen's 1975 European] tour unfolded largely without incident, apart from… the showdown between Marty Machat and Herbert von Karajan in Berlin when the famed conductor, still rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic, refused to let them in to do their soundcheck. ‘Marty’s ego and von Karajan’s ego – that was quite something,’ Lissauer recalls.
That vignette appears in the immensely enjoyable I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. John Lissauer produced two of the singer/song-writer’s albums, and Marty Machat was a music industry lawyer who managed both Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector. When Cohen had a crisis of confidence prior to appearing at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival and pleaded “I can’t sing”, Machat responded “None of you guys can sing - when I want to hear singers, I go to the Metropolitan Opera”.

More on Karajan's ego here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. I’m Your Man was borrowed from Norwich library. Photo montage is my work. 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, May 30, 2013

Anyone need extra hands at a festival somewhere?

'I've got some time this summer. Anyone need extra hands at a festival somewhere?'
Posted by John McLaughlin Williams - seen above - on his Facebook page. Need I say more?

Photo credit Yanko Dimitrov. JMW can be contacted via my email in the sidebar. 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 posted on Facebook and Twitter.

Lost in explanation


Can you imagine music without explanation?

Elmediator is a multi-genre and multimedia performance venue in Perpignan, France. This post is also available via Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Do not do as you have always done

Man lives in a state of imagination, in a dream: no one sees things as they are. To him who says to you: “What shall I do?” say to him “Do not do as you have always done; do not act as you have always acted” – from the Sufi epic Conference of the Birds.

My photos show the remains of the Rivesaltes internment camp in Languedoc, France. It was one of the notorious camps built by the French government in 1939 to house Spanish Republican refugees fleeing from Franco’s fascist forces. It is estimated that 15,000 of the Spanish refugees who crossed the border in La Retirada died in internment camps in Northern Catalonia, and another of these camps at Argelès-sur-Mer has featured here previously.


Rivesaltes achieved particular notoriety as the camp was used by the Vichy government to hold Jews and other so-called “undesirables” after the French surrendered to the Nazis in 1940. Despite being in the unoccupied zone more than 2250 Jews including 110 children were deported from the camp along L’Autoroute de Fait to their death in Auschwitz in a unilateral act of anti-Semitism by the Vichy regime. The terrible fate of the Jews in Rivesaltes is well documented, but the fate of others is not so well researched . This region of France has a rich Gypsy tradition and many Tsiganes (Gypsies) - the forgotten Holocaust victims - were also imprisoned in the camp, see memorial below.


But the terrible history of Rivesaltes did not end there, it was used between 1954 and 1962 as a rest camp for the harkis, the Algerian volunteers who fought alongside the French to protect French interests in the Algerian War of Independence. After that the camp was used from 1987 to 2007 to house illegal immigrants who had fled from Algeria and elsewhere in post-colonial North Africa.


Sites such as this are usually marked by a memorial, But Rivesaltes has no less than five memorials - see photo above. These mark the succession – do not do as you have always done - of humanitarian atrocities perpetrated by the French who have only recently started to come to terms with this black period in their recent history.


The memorials are moving, but the ruins of the camp are far more eloquent. I vaulted some very ugly and rusty barbed-wire to take the accompanying photos. On a brilliant Spring day it was difficult to hold the camera still due to the force of the tramontaine wind roaring down from the mountains and across the coastal plain; in mid-winter life on this blasted heath must have been unbearable.


Photos, words and music cannot adequately portray this monument to human folly. But as we drove away from Rivesaltes we listened to Cristobal de Morale’s Officium Defunctorum. Our chosen recording was the recently re-released CD by La Capella Reial de Catalunya directed by Jordi Savall, that great musician who is a native of Catalonia and has dedicated his life to reminding us not to do as we have always done.


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Friday, May 24, 2013

Boulez greeted him by turning his back

When, in 1951, Henri Dutilleux presented his vibrantly diatonic First Symphony, Boulez greeted him by turning his back.
That is Alex Ross writing in The Rest is Noise and Dutilleux's vibrantly diatonic Symphony is one of the works in a new five CD overview of his music. There is much notable music in the oeuvre of this underrated composer, and also a sub-text that is relevant to the challenges currently facing classical music. Dutilleux (b. 1916) reflects his fascination with time and memory in his compositions, and uses involuntary memory to link past, present and future. His music is certainly not retrogressive. But its message is that, despite Boulez, we cannot turn our backs on the past; a very relevant sentiment as classical music struggles with denying the past and reinventing itself as a child of the digital age.

Virgin Classics' Dutilleux box also includes his Second Symphony, the Cello Concerto composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, the Violin Concerto commissioned by Isaac Stern, and a stunning performance by the Belcea Quartet of Ainsi la Nuit - the latter work obviates back turning as its influences include Webern's Six Bagatelles and Berg’s Lyric Suite, as well as Gregorian chant. I paid just £18.99 for the set at classical independent Prelude Records; yes, it is cheaper elsewhere but I am happy to spend my money in a store where al-Kindī-style good vibrations mean music buying is still a pleasure. Dutilleux is one of several French composers who are worth a detour: others include André Jolivet, who was a friend of Dutilleux, and Maurice Ohama.

Henri Dutilleux died on May 22, 2013. This post is reblogged from August 2012.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Classical music can learn a lot from our feline friends


This cat lives in the house in Assas that was the home of the legendary harpsichordist Scott Ross from 1984 until he died of an Aids related illness five years later. I took the photos a few days ago on the front porch of the little house in Languedoc, and they may be more than just charming images as Scott Ross’ biographer Michel Proulx tells us that the harpsichord master adopted a black and white female cat while living at Assas. So we could be looking at a hitherto unknown member of a great music lineage?

The sleeve notes of Scott Ross’ first LP identified him as a cat lover; in later years his cats accompanied him on transatlantic flights and his feline friends provided the only lasting relationships in an otherwise solitary life. Anthropologist Desmond Morris has observed that “artists like cats; soldiers like dogs”, and there may be a scientific explanation as to why musicians in particular are attracted to cats, as this extract from Akif Pirinçci and Rolf Degen’s book Cat Sense explains.

"In cats… it seems that information can switch from one channel (hearing) to another processing track (sight), performing an action scientifically described as synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is the amalgamation of different sensory channels which usually function quite separately. Sounds are perceived as images, while smells are ‘felt’ as a gentle touch… Synaesthesia is frequently found in literature in the form of metaphorical descriptions of feelings that are difficult to define precisely. The poets of the Romantic period were particularly fond of synaesthesia; they also tended to like cats, and produced several immortal works of feline literature, in particular the delightful fairy tale of Puss in Boots and E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Philosophy of Life of Murr the Cat. The Romantics, consumed by a sense of unquenchable longing and using poetry to cast a spell of enchantment over everyday life, used the stylistic device of synaesthesia to reveal hidden connections and to cross frontiers of meaning.

However, evolution can hardly have created synaesthetic nerve cells just so that the cat could reel intoxicated about the place in a state of poetic rapture. The task of such related perceptions is probably to give the cat more precise information about the outside world, presenting it to the mind’s eye as a complete and fully dimensional work of art. Cats are supposed to have astonishing abilities to find their way home unerringly over incredible distances. Perhaps they really do have a synaesthetic aural image of the sounds of home stored in the memory, and make their way towards that image step by step. One hardly likes to surmise what visions a cat may have on hearing a loud hiccup or even a symphony by Mahler".
Peter Brook urged his actors to “think like a cat”, and there is much that classical music can learn from our feline friends. Switching information between visual and auditory sensory channels may be the key to engaging young audiences, because visual acuity is better developed than aural acuity in young people today. Scott Ross understood the importance of creating aural images – he once said “It may be neither elegant nor aristocratic, but… I can see no shame to being a bit tarty in front of hundreds of persons… it’s a show” - and Denis Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comedien was mandatory reading for his students. A photo essay on Scott Ross’ house in Assas is in preparation.


* Perhaps my suggestion that a great music lineage lives on in Assas is less whimsical than it first seems - see this update.

I am indebted to Michel Proulx not only for his biography of Scott Ross Unfinished Destiny but also for his generous assistance in helping me locate Scott Ross’ house in Assas – let us hope Michel succeeds in porting the text of his biography from his elderly Mac so that it can reach the audience it deserves. This post is being uploaded from a MacDonald’s along the coast from Montpelier, so I hope its spontaneity compensates for any lack of polish. Photos are © On An Overgrown Path 2013 and any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s) Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Noise on the beach


Someone is listening to the twentieth century in this tabac on the beach at Argelès-sur-Mer. Which is understandable as twentieth century culture ebbed and flowed in this part of Catalonia - peace activist, Trappist monk and advocate of inter-religious dialogue Thomas Merton was born in Prades, and that town’s most famous resident Pau Casals worked to relieve the hardship of Spanish Republican refugees in the notorious Argelès internment camp shortly before Alma Mahler passed through as she fled from the Nazis, while the life journey of the less fortunate Walter Benjamin ended here. Many have paid homage to Catalonia, and the ebb and flow continues in the new millennium as the region’s independence movement gathers momentum.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photos are © On An Overgrown Path 2013.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Walking the walk with Alma Mahler

Today it is different. The steady war of propaganda avalanches loosed by press, radio and film makes it impossible for the thought to hear itself. It wavers, weakens and ends up in resignation. And the worst of it is that the evil is not confined to the "totalitarian" parts of Europe, but that it is spreading and infecting the intellectual life of all nations with a strange anarchy mixed of doubt, discontent and confusion.
That extract is from a lecture given in Paris by the the Czech writer Franz Werfel in 1937. The evil that Werfel spoke of forced him, together with his wife Alma - seen above - to flee Vienna a year later and follow an arduous path to freedom in California. For part of their journey they had to walk - with Alma carrying the autograph score of a Bruckner symphony - along the torturous path seen below.


The path is in the region of south-west France where the hills known as the Albères reach the Mediterranean. These hills are the eastern extension of the Pyrenees which form the border between France and Spain. This rough track connecting the coastal towns of Cerbère in France - visible in the distance - and Portbou in Spain was a favoured escape route for refugees in the early years of the Second World War, and today's overgrown path literally walks the walk with Alma Mahler along it.


Alma Mahler, famously described by Tom Lehrer as 'the loveliest girl in Vienna', had married her third husband Franz Werfel in 1929 after a long affair; they are seen above around the time of their wedding. She had been married to Gustav Mahler from 1902 until the composer's death. Alma then married the architect Walter Gropius in 1915 and divorced him five years later. The photo below was taken in Venice in 1920 and shows Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel with Alma's daughter by Walter Gropius, Manon - it was the death of Manon in 1935 that inspired Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. Franz Werfel was Jewish and he and Alma escaped from Austria to France after the Anschluss in 1938. When France surrendered to the Nazis in June 1940 the Werfels were in Paris and joined the exodus south into the unoccupied zone. In Marseille they were given American visas; but were unable to obtain French exit permits as they had been stripped of their nationalities by the Third Reich and did not have passports. They then made several unsuccessful attempts to escape from France, one of which took them to the Catholic pilgrimage centre of Lourdes. There Alma, who had been raised a Catholic, collected pamphlets and religious tracts telling the story of Bernadette Soubirous and the Marian visions. When Franz read the tracts he vowed that if they escaped to freedom he would write a tribute to the girl who became Saint Bernadette.


After they returned to Marseille the Werfels' escape was finally masterminded in July 1940 by Varian Fry. He was an American journalist and humanitarian who ran a privately funded rescue network that helped thousands of Jewish refugees and other fugitives to escape from Vichy France over the Pyrenees into Spain. Varian Fry deserves his own post: while at Harvard he published an influential literary magazine with New York Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein, he interviewed Harvard alumnae and Nazi court composer Ernst Hanfstaengl in 1935, was one of the first to reveal the planned extermination of the Jews, and masterminded the escape from Vichy France of prominent figures including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Wanda Landowska and André Breton. His role in saving key European intellectuals is being celebrated as part of the Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013 activities with the exhibition 'Varian Fry in Marseille: the culture of Europe in exile'. The escape group led by Fry in July 1940 comprised Thomas Mann's son Golo, and Mann's' brother Heinrich with his wife Nelly, as well as the Werfels. Alma and Franz are seen below in the Austrian Alps.


Alma's baggage filled twelve trunks and included several Mahler manuscripts, among them Das Lied von der Erde. In her diary Alma describes how "I was wearing sandals, and lugged along a bag containing the rest of the money and jewellery and the score of Bruckner's Third Symphony." In fact the score comprised only the first three movements of the symphony. When Bruckner died the autograph score of the Third Symphony was donated to the Hofbibliothek in Vienna, but was found to comprise just the Finale. This was because the composer had given the other movements to Gustav Mahler, either to make a two-piano transcription or as a reward for having made the reduction. Alma discovered the score among Mahler's papers after his death and it became one of her most treasured possessions. After Alma married Franz Werfel the manuscript was displayed in their house in Vienna where it came to the attention of Hitler. The Führer, who was an ardent Brucknerian, offered to buy it. But the manuscript was smuggled out of Vienna after the Werfels fled, and was reunited with Alma in Paris. That is Alma below walking in the countryside in happier times.


Led by Varian Fry, Alma, together with her priceless baggage and companions, travelled by train from Marseille via Perpignan (where Pablo Casals held his first Casals Festival ten years later) to Cerbère; but they could not cross the border by train as they did not have exit visas. After spending the night in Cerbère, Varian Fry, who as an American citizen did have an exit visa, continued on the train with Alma's twelve trunks to Portbou in Spain. A guide then led Alma - cutching her bag containing the Bruckner manuscript - and the other four refugees along the steep path over the Albères hills into Spain to avoid the border patrols. After successfully crossing into Spain the Werfels travelled to Barcelona and on to Lisbon where they boarded a ship for America. They eventually settled in Hollywood where Franz Werfel wrote his novel The Song of Bernadette inspired by the material Alma had collected in Lourdes, and the subsequent film adaption was a huge box office hit. Franz Werfel did not convert to Catholicism, but The Song of Bernadette is considered a classic of Catholic literature. The Werfels are seen together in their Californian home in the photo below. Franz died in 1945 and Alma lived to 1964.


At this point it would be easy to leave the Werfel's in comfortable exile in California. The story of their escape is moving, but it is one that any writer with a good research library and internet access could have told. When I finished my version of their story some time ago the narrative seemed too monochrome and, in common with so much online writing, lacked any real experiential substance. So I set the post aside until I was able to travel to Languedoc with my wife, to literally retrace Alma Mahler's footsteps. It seemed unlikely that the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek would let me take the now complete autograph score of Bruckner's Third Symphony - an impecunious Alma sold her manuscript to them in 1948 following Franz Werfel's death - in my daypack; so I compromised with a recording of the work on my iPod. In fact I travelled to Languedoc twice because, as recounted here previously, my first trip ended in a peritonitis induced near-death experience - which just proves some music bloggers will do anything for a good story. But there were no such complications on my second visit, and our journey produced the photo journal below. So here, in colour rather than black and white, is a contemporary reconstruction of Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel's trek to freedom.

Above is the view of the town of Cerbère (Cervera in Catalan) that Alma and Franz would have seen when they arrived by train from Marseille. At the time Cerbère and Portbou on the Spanish side of the border were major transport hubs, with much of the cross-border traffic passing through them. But the decline of the railways and the building of the E15 motorway inland means they are now ghost towns.


This photo shows the view looking towards Spain from Cerbère station. The tunnel is the one that Varian Fry's train would have travelled through to Portbou, while Alma and Franz had to climb over the Albères hills above it to reach freedom


After climbing the hill this is the view that Alma and Franz would have seen looking back towards Cerbère station where the previous photo was taken.


This is the border crossing between France and Spain that the refugees had to avoid - the checkpoint has been disused since the creation of the borderless Schengen area in 1995.


As Alma and Franz did not have exit visas and the area was patrolled by Vichy sympathisers, the refugees had to avoid the check-point by taking the path over the hill above it, this is the view down to the border crossing.


I try to avoid using photographs of myself, but this one is included to prove that I walk the walk as well as talking the talk. Alma Mahler was 61 when she walked the walk, which was two years younger than me. But I had the advantage over Alma of Gore-Tex walking boots instead of sandals!


On the Spanish side of the border is this memorial to the Spanish Republican refugees who perished crossing the frontier in the opposite direction during the 1939 La retirada (retreat) from Franco's forces. Their story is told in Postcards from a forgotten concentration camp.


In the background of this view of the Spanish frontier town of Portbou is the descent which Alma and Franz followed. My final photo below shows Portbou station where Alma and Franz took the train to Barcelona and on to fame and fortune in America. The Werfels trek across the Albères had a happy ending, as did mine at the second attempt. But others were less fortunate, and another post tells of how, just two months after the Werfels passed through Portbou to freedom, another refugee - the German-Jewish writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin - took his own life in the town.


This post is dedicated with love to my wonderful wife whose speedy intervention in Languedoc meant that I survived to blog another day. Mad soul, she is currently packing our car for another trip to that magical region where the Albères hills reach the Mediterranean. À bientôt, j'espère!

* Sources include
- Franz Werfel, A Life in Prague, Vienna and Hollywood by Peter Stephan Jungk (Fromm ISBN 0880641304)
- A Hero of Our Own, the Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg (Randon House ISBN 0375502211
- Alma Mahler, Muse to Genius by Karen Monson (Collins ISBN 0002163152)
- The New Bruckner: Compositional Developments and the Dynamics of Revision by Dermot Gault (ISBN: 9781409400912)
- Love and War in the Pyrenees by Rosemary Bailey (Phoenix ISBN 9780753825914)

Photos 2 and 8 to 16 are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). My trip to Languedoc was entirely self-fubded. Also on Facebook and Twitter.