Saturday, November 29, 2014

Degenerate music writing


Rated as a top 15 UK university, the University of East Anglia is also ranked among the elite 1% of higher education institutions worldwide, and its alumni include Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. In the current edition of Concrete, the University's official student newspaper, there is an article titled What are you really listening to? It is written by the paper's music editor Myles Earle and "delves into how music is used as a propagandist tool". Here, complete with spelling, syntax and other errors, is an extract:
Take a look at Germany in the 1930’s; Entartete Musik, or Degenerate Music, a well-known campaign during the Nazi regime, saw to the discrediting of artists and musicians, silencing their music and classing them as harmful by the Third Reich. Nazi sympathiser and Hitler’s preferred composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner is just one example of someone who was assigned to create operas and music that walked the same path of the Nazi ideology. This anti-Semetic composer presented German mythology in his operas in a way that portrayed the Nazi ideals as heroic, all whilst the music of black Jazz artists were banned on the radio during 1933.
Image is from J. Walter McSpadden's The Stories of Wagner's Operas. Any copyrighted material is included for as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Classical music is peopled with Arabs, Persians and Turks

Confronted with muezzins, Mecca pilgrims and houris, does anybody think of operas, oratorios and lieder? Yet European classical music is peopled with Arabs, Persians and Turks, and would sound quite different today had it not been influenced by the Orient …
That is the opening paragraph from an invaluable essay titled Islam in European Classical Music. It appears on Fikrun wa Fann (Art and Thought) the cultural magazine of the Goethe Institut devoted to dialogue with the Islamic world, and it provides a welcome corrective to the current demonisation of Islam. But are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?

Rimsky-Korsakov's Symphonic Suite after "A Thousand and One Nights" Scheherazade in the classic 1959 recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner seen above first featured in a 2008 post. As I said then, it is easy to understand from this extraordinary performance why Reiner was feared and hated by members of his orchestra. It is hard-driven with almost impossible tempi for the exposed parts, but the result is one of the wonders of the gramophone. My thanks go to the bridge-building Yahya Lequeux for the heads up on the Goethe Institut article. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Is retro really so sad?


Composer Ivan Moody shared yesterday's post about the renaissance of vinyl on Facebook with the exhortation to "Discuss". To which fellow composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz responded: "Discuss which? The excellent picture or the sad article? Retro makes me sad, but I like the pretty picture -- a kind of museum". So today I am posting another pretty picture taken on my visit to Holland showing the bike park at Leiden central station. Some may dismiss the scene as a sad museum. Others will see it as impressive evidence of how visionary support for a retro technology - the bicycle - by the Dutch government and populace has resulted in a massive improvement in quality of life. This morning BBC News has run the following story:
More than one million vinyl records have been sold in the UK so far this year - the first time the milestone has been achieved since 1996. The figures mark a largely unexpected resurgence in an industry now considered to be dominated by digital.Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live's Wake Up to Money, Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company said: "It's really remarkable. We're seeing it come back as a significant earner for the music industry as well.
How sad is that? - remember that streaming is not a "significant earner" for musicians. Classical music needs to think outside the box - in more ways than one. Classical music also needs to realise that all new technologies - internal combustion engines and digital platforms - are guilty until proven innocent.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Orchestras need to wake up and smell the coffee


That photo was taken in Concerto Records - a candidate for the best record store in the world - in Amsterdam on Monday. It shows part of the extensive range of new and reconditioned (Thorens etc) turntables on sale in the store, a range that is complemented by a wide selection of vinyl LPs. High end audio stores have majored on turntables for some time, but their appearance in mass market outlets is significant. The resurgence of vinyl can no longer be dismissed as a fashion fad. No one is suggesting that digital formats will be replaced by analogue LPs. But, as reported here recently, vinyl sales increased by the same percentage (40%) in the first half of 2014 as streaming, and vinyl presses are currently at maximum capacity to keep up with demand. Of course vinyl is fragile and non-portable. But let's drill down below the obvious. Consumers are embracing (re-embracing actually) a music format that defies the 'music to go' movement. They are voting with their wallets for a format that demands, to quote Britten, "some preparation", or, to quote Copland, requires the listener "to pay attention and to give the music [their] concentrated effort as an active listener". But it is the rock/alternative sectors that are capitalising on this trend, while orchestras and classical labels continue, lemming-like, to give their music away as effortless sonically-challenged digital streams.

There is no clearer confirmation of this lemming-like behaviour than the forthcoming annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras. At the January 2015 conference the keynote speaker will be Helen Boaden, director of BBC Radio. Ms Boaden has absolutely no track record of winning new audiences for classical music. Her rise in the BBC was in current affairs and business programming. As head of news she was criticised by the BBC commissioned Pollard report over her involvement in the Jimmy Savile fiasco: the following is a quote from the Guardian: 'The Pollard report also said she failed to take responsibility or act decisively even as her news division was in "virtual meltdown" in October"'. Despite this Ms Boaden was promoted to director of BBC Radio in February 2013 by new director general Tony Hall, who had been appointed following his predecessor's resignation in the wake of the Savile scandal.

In the twenty-two months since Ms Boaden became director of BBC Radio the audience for classical network Radio 3 has continued to shrink and Proms attendances have dropped 5%. During her reign the controller of Radio 3 has departed in opaque circumstances, and a successor has been appointed with zero broadcasting experience, and, to judge by his first pronouncements, zero understanding of classical radio. But I may be doing the Association of British Orchestras and Helen Boaden a disservice. Perhaps the theme of her conference keynote speech will be "How not to win new audiences for classical music".

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Never mind the music, feel the algorithms


That header photo shows pianist Valentina Lisitsa performing at the 2014 Bristol Proms - yes, there is a piano in there somewhere. As the caption on the Classic FM website explains: "There ain't no party like a Valentina party! Chopin, Beethoven, a crowd-sourced programme, YouTube clips, a Classic FM live blog projected onto the back wall - it was all happening at the Bristol Proms".

In a planning meeting for the 1969 Woodstock Festival the festival's co-ordinator of underground advertising Bert Cohen proclaimed: "It's got to be prevalent in your advertising; you're gonna hafta take some of the emphasis off the music and place it on the vibes". Woodstock became a legend, and the emphasis on vibes defined the direction of rock music for decades. Universal Music, which is led by ex-rock band manager Max Hole, is the driving force behind the Bristol Proms, and Valentina Lisitsa's concert (happening?) is an attempt to add rock vibes to classical music. Thankfully only a few Universal Music senior executives with fading Woodstock posters on their office walls are taking classical music with added balloons seriously. But there is a more insidious shift in emphasis happening in classical music which demands closer study.

A recent BBC news story told how a viral YouTube video that purports to show a young boy rescuing a little girl under gunfire in Syria was actually shot on a film set in Malta using professional actors. Forget about the ethics, or lack thereof, of the deception, and forget the frightening evidence of how social media can turn fiction into reality. In the BBC report there is this alarming paragraph:
So once the film was made, how did it go viral? "It was posted to our YouTube account a few weeks ago but the algorithm told us it was not going to trend," [director Klaus Klevberg] said. "So we deleted that and re-posted it." The filmmakers say they added the word "hero" to the new headline and tried to send it out to people on Twitter to start a conversation. It was then picked up by Shaam Network, a channel that features material from the Middle East, which posted it on YouTube. Then it began to attract international attention.
This is just one example of how social media is controlled by algorithms; it is not the content that matters, it is whether the headline triggers the algorithms. Headlines such as 'Mozart’s brothel opera goes topless for Turkey' are more than journalistic taste crimes; they are a crude - in more ways than one - way of pandering to the algorithms that control social media news feeds. And it works: because the great and good of the classical music establishment fall over themselves to be featured on the algorithm whoring websites.

But the problem comes when the well-whored audience is tempted into the concert hall or opera house. This is where expectation meets reality and one of Mozart's more popular operas turns out not only to be fully clothed, but an abstruse three hour journey through the outer reaches of Freemasonry. At which point the pressure builds for the algorithms to start influencing the music itself. In fact the algorithms have started to influence the music. An example of how concert planning is pandering to social media algorithms is the uncomfortable mix of the Pet Shop Boys and Mozart that is now found at the BBC Proms. And they are influencing the music in a more transparent way at the University of Malaga, where researchers have composed "coherent symphonies" - their words not mine - using computer algorithms. We cannot stand in the way of progress and Max Hole is almost certainly right when he says that classical music must shed its traditions. The problem is it seems that the music itself will be one of the traditions that is shed.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Now we rise and we are everywhere

Blake's poems were a great influence for Nick's lyrics, and the music of J.S. Bach inspired some of his songs. Nick loved the music of Bach, I used to play the 'Badinerie' on flute for him, but he also loved Mozart (the Clarinet Concert was one of his favourites and also the Piano Sonatas KV 331 and 333) and other composers like Schubert, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Strawinsky and Grieg. Apart from classic music we listened to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, The Band (The Big Pink) amongst many others.
That eclectic mix of influences* is the crucible in which Nick Drake's music was forged, and an LP of the Brandenburgs was on the turntable in his bedroom when he died on 24th November 1974 aged 26. That is Nick in the photo above; he was born a year before me, and our paths may have crossed in St. Tropez in 1967. His music has been a constant in my life for many years: I first posted about him in 2005 and five years later made the pilgrimage to his resting place at Tanworth-in-Arden. The epitaph Now we rise and we are everywhere inscribed on his headstone is taken from the lyrics of the last track on Nick's 1971 album Pink Moon. For me that final album eclipses all his other work. Gone are the cloying Joe Boyd commissioned arrangement, and the tautness of the lyrics transcend the And at the chime of the city clock/Put up your road block un-Blakeian doggerel sometimes found on his earlier albums.

We can only speculate on the direction that Nick Drake's music would have taken if he had not died so young. But a newly released album gives a tantalising glimpse. On Time of No Reply French jazz guitarist Misja FitzGerald Michel and guests pay homage to Nick in sparse arrangements that discard his complex open tunings and eschew vocals on all the tracks except - significantly - Pink Moon. Nick recorded his Pink Moon album in just two late night sessions, and it plays for only 28 minutes. Misja FitzGerald Michel's Time of No Reply - video sample here - plays for just 38 minutes and is released on the No Format label, a record company that defies the "taste-formatting logic today reigning over the record-industry". Nick Drake blazed like a meteor across the 1960s music scene, and Misja FitzGerald Michel's homage to him blazes like a meteor across the dark skies of contemporary art music.

* Header quote is from an online reminiscence by artist Sonja Wagner. No review samples were used in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent

I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my pursuit after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject'
Those words by Mahatma Gandhi prefaced his writings published by the Navijan Trust. I am posting them On An Overgrown Path as I enter what Gandhi called old age, but which I more decorously call becoming a state pensioner. But the call of Truth still beckons, and in a few days I am off travelling on the path of a master musician and spiritual master who met Gandhi in London in 1914. Hazrat Inayat Khan taught that growing inward involved 'unlearning', and explained that "the more wise one becomes, the more one is able to contradict one's own ideas". His book The Mysticism of Sound and Music, which was published in 1923, remains influential to this day. The book's revelations about the fundamental role of vibrations have influenced many great minds including Jonathan Harvey, who in an interview explained how: "We all know about the soprano shattering the wine glass. It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation".

Hazrat Inayat Khan believed that the practice of unlearning - contradicting one's own ideas - is an essential part of inward growth, and this teaching is very relevant not only to musicians but also to audiences. In another wisdom tradition Ostad Elahi, a Persian philosopher (follower of Ahl-e Haqq not Islam), jurist and master of the sacred lute (New Yorkers please note), expounded on the "necessity of antipodal states" in both music and the soul. Antipodal states are what is missing from classical music today, with an unhealthy obsession with consistency complementing, not contradicting, established thinking. Unlearning is another form of the 'beginner's mind' taught by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who explained that: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few... this is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner". Or, to put it another way: my world and my music are never one and the same.

Photo was taken by me at the deeply moving Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi earlier this year. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When orchestras used the ash trays on their music stands


That photo shows the composer Doreen Carwithen at a recording of her music. The image is held by Cambridge University as part of the William Alwyn Archive; because as well as being a noted composer in her own right, Doreen Carwithen was the second wife of William Alwyn. The caption provides no further information about the - presumably BBC - session at which the photograph was taken, but the sign on the front of the podium asking the musicians to 'Please use ash trays on music stands' is clearly legible.

There has been much pleading recently for a higher profile for women composers, so it is strange that a new recording of Doreen Carwithen's 1948 Concerto for Piano and Strings has slipped under the radar. A CD from the independent SOMM label couples Doreen Carwithen's Concerto with piano concertos by Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Williamson - the latter a now strangely forgotten composer who achieved some prominence during William Glock's tenure at the BBC. The new recording by pianist Mark Bebbington and the Innovation Chamber Ensemble (players drawn from the CBSO) conducted by Richard Jenkinson is not the first of the Carwithen Concerto: Chandos has recorded it as well as her Violin Sonata and String Quartets. The stature of Doreen Carwithen's Concerto for Piano and Strings is indicated by its appearance in a 1952 Promenade Concert alongside works by Mozart, Haydn and Delius; back in 1952 orchestras may have used the ash trays on their music stands, but there was no late night contemporary music ghetto at the Proms. Sample Doreen Carwithen's Concerto here, and more on smoking during concerts here.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is this the world's most expensive cymbal crash?


Vociferous complaints of inadequate funding by the classical music establishment are all too often justified. But sometimes it is difficult for outsiders to accept that classical music exists in a state of perpetual penury. An example is the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester's six concert tour to America which has just ended. On Twitter a player with the German orchestra has reported that one of the percussionists on the tour made the 9000 mile round trip to the States and spent ten nights in hotels to play in just two of the concerts. The percussionist's sole contribution at these two concerts was the cymbal crash at the climax of the Adagio second movement - see above - of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.

Image of Bruckner score via Loeb Music Library, Harvard. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Horizons untouched


Sinfini Music - which is owned and controlled by Universal Music - is profiling and puffing the ECM label. Now ECM deserves to be profiled and puffed, but some background is missing from the Sinfini article. So here is my contribution to the ECM profile, taken from a post that first appeared On An Overgrown Path in April 2013.

Such is the degree of control exerted by global music 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 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 the label's long-term global partner Universal Music.

Header image is not from a new ECM Meredith Monk CD - it was taken at Thetford landfill site. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I read the news today oh boy


Eight hours after the story above was published yesterday On An Overgrown Path, the one below appeared on Slipped Disc*. I now eagerly await Norman Lebrecht's exclusive on the performance by the Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia Sufi brotherhood at this year's Salzburg Summer Festival.

* Times of publication can be verified by hovering over the links on Classical Music Alltop. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Does classical music really need a younger audience?


F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone tells it like it is in Campaign Asia-Pacific magazine:
Young kids will see the Rolex [watch] brand but are they going to go and buy one? They can’t afford it. Or our other sponsor UBS – these kids don’t care about banking. They haven’t got enough money to put in the bloody banks anyway. That’s what I think. I don’t know why people want to get to the so-called ‘young generation’. Why do they want to do that? Is it to sell them something? Most of these kids haven’t got any money. I’d rather get to the 70-year-old guy who’s got plenty of cash. So, there’s no point trying to reach these kids because they won’t buy any of the products here and if marketers are aiming at this audience, they maybe they should advertise with Disney.”
Image via Uncylomedia. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pieces of Africa


That tableau was photographed by me in the inspirational Nubia Museum in Aswan, Upper Egypt. The museum was opened in 1997 in response to UNESCO's appeal to preserve examples of the Nubian culture that was facing obliteration from flooding by the nearby Aswan High Dam. In a parallel mission Hamza El Din celebrated the Nubian culture in music. His iconic 1971 album Escalay (The Water Wheel) was released on the Nonesuch label and influenced American minimalist pioneers including Terry Riley. In 1992 Elektra released Pieces of Africa by the Kronos Quartet which featured a twelve minute version of Escalay commissioned from Hamza El Din by the Kronos. Pieces of Africa was described by Time as a "potent new brew of folk influences, minimalism, and European forms by eight black, brown, and white African composers" and went on to become the first album to top both the classical and world music Billboard charts.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

That dead moose is back on the Simon Bolivar stage


In the Guardian Geoff Baker previews his forthcoming book under the headline El Sistema: a model of tyranny? and the sub-head fills in the story: "Far from the shining example of how classical music can change vulnerable young lives many claim it to be, Venezuala’s El Sistema fails the country’s most deprived children". Now, a declaration of interest is needed*: I haven't read El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela as it isn't published until November 28th. But I know that Geoff Baker cites several of my numerouis critical posts about El Sistema in his book.

Nine years ago I first raised concerns about the cultural/corporate agenda of El Sistema in a post titled No such thing as an unknown Venezuelan conductor. In this I said: "I also happen to know that fairytales just don't exist anymore in today's world of classical music - except in the minds of PR men and management agencies", and that view is echoed by Geoff Baker who explains that in Venezuela El Sistema is "characterised variously as a cult and a corporation". In a 2006 post titled Classical music and the paid-for media I raised concerns about how the mass media had swallowed the El Sistema myth hook, line and sinker, saying: "Don't readers of the paid-for newspapers need all the hard facts they can get on The System behind these glowing articles?" This theme is taken up by Geoff Baker, who in the Guardian tells how in Venzuela he found: "A different Sistema, one that bore little resemblance to the heart-warming story told by the institution itself and the international media".

More recently I have written about The dead moose on the Simon Bolivar stage . In that post I questioned why the classical music establishment has resolutely ignored the darker side of El Sistema. Now Geoff Baker has - not before time - given that question a much higher profile. There are always two sides to any argument, and, heavens knows, we need all the music education we can get. But El Sistema and the celebrities associated with it have received the fawning and uncritical attention of the music establishment for too long. So it is good that Geoff Baker's forthcoming book looks set to add some balance to the debate.



* A review copy of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela is being sent to me by Oxford University Press. 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.

Champagne for John Tavener


That is John Tavener in the centre of a magazine cover from the 1960s . Towering over him* is Arianna Stassinopoulos, who around that time was an item with Bernard Levin. Later she was married to Michael Huffington and went on to found the Huffington Post; after which, happily, there is life. John Tavener left us for the Eastern Orthodox heaven on 12th November, 2013. I had been celebrating our daughter's birthday that evening by imbibing rather too much good champagne, and only learnt of the composer's death after the party. I have no pretension to being a music journalist, and therefore do not feel obliged to write obituaries for every musician that passes on. But I do write tributes to those enlightened souls who have made my life a little brighter, and John Tavener certainly falls into that category. So, fuelled by Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Yellow Label, I dashed off the personal tribute to him that was singled out for a special mention by Alex Ross and others. If there is any moral in this little story, it is that the dire condition of current music journalism could be improved, perhaps, by the liberal application of decent champagne.

* The party people in the photo are from left to right; playwright Michael Hastings, author Angela Huth, food writer Josceline Dimbleby, JT, AS,and writer Gaia Servadio. My thanks go to reader Jon Silpayamanant for pointing out how to reference link-whoring sites without improving their search engine rating. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Exotic and free, tight and complex.....


Amazon reviews are a perfect example of the damage inflicted by citizen journalism. But one reviewer did get it right when they praised the Hadouk Trio's "exotic and free, tight and complex" mix of self-styled 'vegetal groove' jazz and world music. The Trio's name is a conflation of its unique instrumental line up - hajhouj (another name for the guembri of the Moroccan gnawa) and doudouk (Armenian flute). Formed in 1996, the original line-up was Didier Malherbe (doudouk), Loy Ehrlich (guembri) and Steve Shehan (percussion). Didier Malherbe, who spent time in India and Tangiers in the 1960s and sessioned with Ravi Shankar, is the driving force behind the band, and four of their albums from 1999 to 2009 have been brought together by Naïve in the box set above, which retails for the price of four budget CDs. Sample the Hadouk's signature sound here, and Condona, another pioneering jazz meets world music combo, are showcased here. Just for fun I have appended below a photo, which first appeared in Chance music from the souk system, of me surrounded by guembri and other exotic instruments in the appropriately named Bob Music in Essaouira Morocco.


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Monday, November 10, 2014

Today everyone is in the music delivery business


That photo of the Coptic Cathedral of Archangel Michael was taken when I visited Aswan in Upper Egypt last year. In her book Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt Valerie J. Hoffman describes how the Sufi spirituality of Islam has much in common with Christian Coptic spirituality. In a post last year I described how the Copts believe they are the direct descendants of the Pharoahs, and how the Coptic Church practices not only the oldest Christian music, but also the oldest music in the world. A chain of transmission links the Coptic Church to the Hermetic tradition and the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic tradition has many links with music; these start with Michael Maier in the 16th century, and burgeoned in the late 19th century to embrace notable figures including Edward Elgar, Rutland Boughton, John Ireland, and Eric Saite. Satie's repetitious Vexations was an influence on John Cage, and the repetitious Sufi-inspired music of Hamza El Din from Nubia - now Upper Egypt - influenced American minimalists including Terry Riley, while the wider influence of Sufism can be found as far afield as Wagner and Jonathan Harvey.

Classical music is not a simple one-size-fits-all art form. It is a complex syncretic artform that in the single paragraph above extends from Coptic chant to John Cage. But the classical music establishment refuses to acknowledge this complexity and diversity, and instead remains wedded to the one-size-fits-all strategy that last year gave us 24/7 Britten, this year 24/7 Richard Strauss, and next year will give us 24/7 Sibelius. New personalised digital delivery platforms mean audience behaviour has changed, but the music establishment hasn't. Orchestras still believe they are in the concert promotion business, classical radio stations still believes they are in the programme production business, and record companies still believe they are in the music recording business. Whether we like it or not, the only music industry sector that has it right is the new technology sector. Because Spotify, iTunes and others have leveraged digital technology and become personalised music delivery services.

Forget about concert promotion, radio programme production and music recording business being discrete industry sectors. Because digital technologies mean that today everyone is in the music delivery business. And, as a result, everyone is in competition with everyone else. The problem is that the music establishment hasn't woken up and smelt the coffee. Orchestras still see other orchestras - our Mahler is better than their Mahler - as the only competition. Classical radio stations still see other classical radio stations - our programmes have more listeners than their programmes - as the only competition. And classical record companies still see other record companies - our CDs sell more than their CDs - as the only competition. While, all the time, orchestras, radio stations and record companies are haemorrhaging audience to the new personalised music delivery services.

The solution is not to bolt new delivery technologies on to tired legacy formats. That is what orchestras and record companies are doing by jumping on the streaming bandwagon. Bored by Mahler in the concert hall and on CD? - now you can also be bored by his music in the airport departure lounge. That is what classical radio has done with on-demand streaming. Bored by bland radio programmes? - now you can be bored by them for a second time. To survive orchestras, radio stations and record companies need to acculturate and serve an audience that demands personalised, specialised and fragmented music delivery. When did you last go to a concert, listen to a radio programme or look at a CD release schedule that mixed Coptic Chant, Nubian Sufi music, 16th century Rosicrucian music, Elgar, Wagner, Satie, Cage and Jonathan Harvey? Am I being hopelessly idealistic? Not all all: because that mix is on my personal playlist, and similarly eclectic mixes are on millions of other personal playlists. Which is why the audiences for concerts, classical radio and CD/downloads are in decline. How long can classical music ignore the glaringly obvious?

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must be silent

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.
For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only when something can be said.
Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must be silent.
That photo of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing was taken by me a few weeks ago when driving home across the Somme battlefields in northern France. The Thiepval Memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and the quotation is from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which was set as a motet by the architect's daughter Elisabeth Lutyens. Nicknamed 'twelve-tone Lizzie', Elisabeth Lutyens is another candidate who meets Alex Ross' criteria of "Instead of trying to invent a female Bach in prior centuries, let’s seek her in the present". Her Excerpta Tractatus Logico-Philosophici addresses in a different but equally powerful way the same riddle as Britten explores in his War Requiem, and the motet deserves to be heard rather than languishing in obscurity. There is more on Elisabeth Lutyens in Walking with Stravinsky.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

This new CD demands to be listened to time and time again

' ...our discontentment over being human, with its inherent limitations, is boiling over. Case in point: music is now routinely given a slick, post-production shove toward hyperreality. ...Media have altered musical perspective (e.g., stage perspective, podium perspective, audience perspective, stereo hifi perspective, and in- or over-ear perspective) to such a degree that acoustics developed intuitively over generations (and hardened into convention) to enhance natural sound must now be supplanted by subtle (or not so subtle) amplification and digital processing to satisfy a generation that may never have stepped inside a concert hall and is instead acculturated to the isolating, degraded sound of earbuds and headphones playing back mp3s. Reorienting concert soundscapes and recordings to model immersive, inside-the-head experience (VR tricks the eye in a similar fashion) is promulgated as inevitable if music presenters wish to attract new generations of concertgoers and thus retain audiences.'
Those extracts come from a post on The Spiral Staircase that responds to my recent musings on how no one mixes for speakers these days. In his post the author asks "How fully does the gradual disappearance of natural sound in the ear (namely, wearing earbuds 24/7) signify the dire condition of humanity?" This observation - which is an extreme development of views held by notables including Benjamin Britten and R. Murray Schafer - was given sharp focus by my recent listening. Readers will know that I buy a lot of CDs - in fact too many according to my credit card statement. For reasons that have been discussed here frequently, recorded music (CDs are my choice, streaming is the choice of others) has largely replaced classical radio and the concert hall as my way to explore new musical territory.

Some CDs are listened to only once or twice, and then filed away. My view is that the cost of sampling something new on disc is remarkably good value for money compared with a ticket for the Gergiev Ring in Birmingham. But some CDs stay in constant rotation, simply because they demand to be listened to time and time again. The newly released Guillaume Dufay: The Masses for 1453 performed by Cantica Symphonia directed by Giuseppe Maletto falls, most definitely, into the latter category. In fact repeated auditions of this disc from Spanish independent label Glossa have left me wondering if sacred music - particularly from the Catholic Church - is allowed to be so ravishingly sensuous and beautiful. This is ravishingly beautiful music given ravishingly beautiful performances and captured in ravishingly beautiful and lifelike sound in La chiesa della Beata Vergine del Monte Carmelo in Italy. The planets align with exceptionally auspicious synchronicity on this new release, and the power of one of those celestial bodies needs to be highlighted.

In a codicil to the informative sleeve essay, Giuseppe Maletto and producer Guido Magnano provide notes on the performance conventions adopted by Cantica Symphonia. With admirable frankness they confess that do not possess any documentary evidence to support their use of appropriate instruments (harp, fiddle, slide trumpets, sackbuts and organ). But it was not their convincing argument that authentic performances are a silly convention that caught my attention. It was the following passage describing how the CDs ravishingly beautiful sound was captured that stopped me in my tracks, because it connects so strongly with debates here about reorienting concert soundscapes:
'We have chosen to record this disc with a single pair of microphones, that aim being of obtaining a recorded sound corresponding to that in a church with a natural "halo" effect defined by the reverberation and the various acoustic relationships which are established spontaneously when the writing is reduced to fewer voices; rather than that of constructing an artificial sound balance at the post-production stage' - see session photos below.
Later in the article Limitations of Being Human its author Brutus confesses, with brutal frankness, that "I don’t really care much about audience building or the business and marketing aspects of music; others can attend to those concerns". But classical music is obsessively preoccupied with audience building, and Brutus' prescient observation about discontentment boiling over is very relevant to this preoccupation. Sorry to be über-uncool; but classical music can learn much from Buddhism. In his penetrating Buddhism Without Beliefs Stephen Batchelor points out that the Buddha's first noble truth that discontentment is an inseparable part of life, is not an injunction to act, but an injunction to understand. Discontentment is triggering futile action within classical music, because audiences are perceived as too elitist, too old, too technologically resistant, too bound by conventions, too unwelcoming, too reluctant to pay the ticket prices demanded by celebrity musicians, and, above all, too unwilling to multiply like rabbits. If classical music could but understand that its audience is mercurial, diverse, remarkably inelastic in response to commercial marketing techniques and, most importantly, human, discontentment would stop boiling over. Then we would all have more time to appreciate the ravishing beauty of peerless music such as the Dufay Masses.

Dufay's Masses of 1453 was bought at Prelude Records. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious

'The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort as an active listener'
That is Aaron Copland writing in What to Listen for in Music back in 1939. Today, advocating tweeting in concerts is considered über-cool, but advocating mindfulness in concerts is considered über-uncool. Which is strange: because icons such as Copland and Cage who are revered by the new, younger target audience, advocated mindfulness. Norman Lebrecht recently disingenuously suggested* that as 100,000 people had read Baldur Brönimann’s proposals for changing classical music, 100,000 people were in favour of tweeting and drinking during concerts. I am not foolhardy enough to suggest that as a Google search for the term 'John Cage mindfulness' returns 991,000 results, there are 991,000 people who believe that mobile phones and drinks have no place in concerts. But I am suggesting, once again, that classical music should stop ignoring the glaringly obvious. Of course some things need to change in classical concerts; not least the unadventurous and audience whoring programmes performed by unadventurous and audience whoring celebrity musicians. But too many of the proposals for change that keep doing the rounds are just another form of the audience whoring** that has already done so much damage to classical music.

* Links to 'Slipped Disc' are indirect to avoid page rank inflation; references cited should be at the top of the Google search results.
** It would be interesting to learn the views of Baldur Brönimann’s new orchestra Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música - which records for Naxos and other labels - on his assertion that: "People should be able to tweet, take pictures or record concerts silently. If people buy tickets, they should have the rights to record what they see and share their thoughts with others". Doubtless Univeral Music/Sinfini also have some robust views on Brönimann’s alternative approach to intellectual property ownership.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, November 03, 2014

While Mrs Bach was composing the Cello Suites...


This little known portrait of JSB in role reversal mode adds weight to the fashionable theory that Anna Magdalena Bach composed the Cello Suites. (For the image's provenance see my 2009 post Bach - an intimate portrait). However, writing of the Mrs Bach brouhaha, Jessica Duchen asks "Do we really need more tales about women in music who didn't really do things, when there are so many who did, provenly so, but are not recognised for it?", while in the New Yorker Alex Ross expresses the admirable sentiment that "Instead of trying to invent a female Bach in prior centuries, let’s seek her in the present". Among Bach's many glories is his (her?) organ music; so in response to Jessica and Alex, and in justification of my participation in the Mrs Bach clickbait fest, I am drawing attention to the music and life of Jeanne Demessieux.

Born in Montpelier, France in 1921, Jeanne Demessieux was a child prodigy who at the age of twelve was appointed principal organist of the church of Saint-Esprit in Paris. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire where she won the Premier Prix in organ & improvisation in 1941, and was a pupil of Marcel Dupré for sixteen years; Dupré launched her career as an organ virtuoso, but there was later an acrimonious split between teacher and pupil. Jeanne Demessieux had a prodigious memory and, reputedly, committed to memory the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, César Franck, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and Marcel Dupré. As her reputation spread she undertook recital tours in Europe and North America, with Virgil Thomson being among those praising her talents. The glass ceiling that confines women musicians is still topical; so it is noteworthy that Jeanne Demessieux broke through this ceiling by becoming the first woman organist to give recitals in many celebrated cathedrals, including London's Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

If Jeanne Demessieux is remembered at all today, it is as the first internationally acclaimed woman organ virtuoso, and a number of her celebrated recordings remain in the catalogue - see footer image. But she was also a talented composer; of her thirty-one documented compositions only eight are for organ, with the balance ranging from works for solo piano to an extended oratorio La Chanson de Roland. Her organ compositions are published and performed, but of her other output just one work, the Ballade, op. 12, for horn and piano, was published. Maurizio Ciampi's recording of Jeanne Demessieux's Six Etudes and Sept Méditations sur Le Saint Esprit are recommended for those wanting to explore her organ compositions, with the influence of Dupré, Cesar Frank and early Messiaen surfacing in these two works from the 1940s.

In 1962 Jeanne Demessieux broke through another glass ceiling when she was appointed titular organist at the prestigious Madeleine in Paris, and in 1967 Decca signed her to record Messiaen's complete organ music to date. But, tragically, the project was never realised as she died of throat cancer in 1968, aged just 47. Although Jeanne Demessieux died almost fifty years ago her story is still relevant. Because towards the end of her life she complained of ‘musical saturation’ and expressed regret about her pressured early life as a child prodigy in the public eye. Very topically, she also complained about having to struggle for recognition in a male-dominated musical culture. Jeanne Demessieux may not have been another JS Bach; however she most certainly was one of the many women musicians who did great things, but are not recognised for it



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Sunday, November 02, 2014

It's official - mindfulness increases audience engagement

'Attention can be modified. It doesn't have to be done chemically or by changing the environment. Human beings have the capacity to learn to self-regulate their attention, and when you do that it increases the quality of typical, everyday experiences. Listening to music mindfully can be a powerful way of increasing your quality of life. We really found significant increases in the participants' aesthetic and flow experience. Some were intense. They were really in the zone.'
That quote comes from University of Oregon assistant professor Frank Diaz. A link to his research was added by a reader to my recent post about how all the fashionable audience engagement initiatives do precisely the opposite to what is intended, because they generate distractions and degrade the listening experience. In a paper that appeared in the journal Psychology of Music last year, Frank Diaz reported how he empirically measured an increase in focused engagement among student participants who listened to ten minutes of classical music after being exposed to a fifteen minute mindfulness exercise.

In his recent widely quoted article 10 things that we should change in classical music concerts, conductor Baldur Brönnimann advocated, without any supporting evidence at all, changes including allowing use of mobile phones (in silent mode) and the taking of drinks into the auditorium. Baldur Brönnimann claims, again without any supporting evidence, that such distracting changes are necessary "to attract a new, younger and more engaged audience". Yet the academically rigorous research carried out at the University of Oregon shows that doing precisely the opposite of what Brönnimann advocates increased audience engagement among a student sample. In fact the headline for the article summarising the research clearly states: 'Mindfulness meditation heightens a listener's musical engagement'. As I asked in my original post, how long can classical music ignore the glaringly obvious?

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Run Before Lightning


This is why the internet connection was so painfully slow in the house that we rented in France recently. Run Before Lightning is a work for flute and piano by Jonathan Harvey which provides the title of an excellent CD of Jonathan's music by the Dynamis Ensemble.

No review samples involved in this post and the snail was not eaten.Despite the escargot we thoroughly recommend the gites at Le Clos St Michel outside Malaucène. Also on Facebook and Twitter.