Thursday, January 30, 2014

Music of non-changes

This year's Association of British Orchestras conference has the stirring theme of New Directions 2014. The conference is presented in conjunction with Classic FM, and yesterday's key note speech by Paul Morley is available exclusively on the Sinfini Music website which is owned and controlled by Univeral Music; coincidentally classical music superpower Universal Music also supplied last year's key note speaker, their ceo Max Hole. Tonight the delegates will be at the "elitist" Barbican Hall - Max Hole's description not mine - to enjoy Brahms and Walton with a dash of Maxwell Davies played by a leading London orchestra under a titled conductor. After which the great and good of British orchestras will doubtless return home preaching the gospel of change. New directions anyone?

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New audiences want classical music up close and personal

'Most of today's music fans are not sitting in their living room, in the listening"sweet spot" of the stereo field, taking in every note of their favorite artist's new album. Most fans are listening in their car, on their laptop, or to their iPod with earbuds. And in most cases, the car, the living room, and so on, the listening device is most likely the iPod or some portable sound device equivalent' - Adam Ayan, Grammy-winning mastering engineer at the legendary Gateway Studios, Portland, Maine

'The truth is that great sounding recordings don't drive our industry. The average modern listener is okay with heavily compressed, grainy MP3s delivered from his or her phone through perfectly awful earbuds' - Kevin Becka, recording engineer and technical editor of Mix magazine

'When the audience changes, the music changes' - Aaron Copland
Do you think the car you will be driving in ten years time will be identical to the one you are driving today? Of course not: technology, lifestyles and consumer expectations are changing at an exponential rate. It is certain that cars in 2024 will be very different, while still performing the same basic function of transporting us from A to B. If automobiles can adapt to changes in technology, lifestyles and consumer expectations while still retaining their core function, why cannot classical music? In fact there is a strong case for saying that although classical music is currently far from dead, it may eventually die like the dinosaurs unless it adapts to its changing environment.

Changes in listening habits fuelled by the rise of mobile technologies have dramatically changed the expectations of new classical audiences. The significant difference between the sound heard via headphones from a mobile audio player and the sound heard in a concert hall may explain why classical music is struggling to connect with new young concertgoers. This post explores the differences between the binaural sound of headphones and the live sound of a concert hall, and makes brainstorming suggestions as to how the chasm that has been opened up between recorded classical music and live concerts can be bridged. In the 1960s the introduction of stereo recordings sparked a boom in record sales that introduced composers such as Mahler to a mass market, and that boom quickly spread to the concert hall. Despite this the spatial opportunities offered by new audio technologies remains neglected, and this post is a contribution to rectifying that imbalance. The accompanying photos were taken at an experimental recording session which explored new approaches to sound immersion and localization.



A musical instrument has five defining characteristics, pitch, rhythm, tone colour, loudness, spatial location and ambience, and the sound of an orchestra is defined by the complex interaction of all five. The development of stereo, which separates and locates the individual sections within an orchestra, made complex music such as Mahler symphonies comprehensible for the lay listener and sparked the golden age of classical recording in the 1960s and 70s. In that golden age stereo recordings were listened to on domestic audio systems. But new mobile technologies and changing lifestyles mean that is no longer the case. A recent press report confirmed what had been evident for some time, that the huge popularity of mobile audio players means that more people listen to music via headphones than via speakers. This switch from headphones to speakers, which is being accelerated by the convergence of audio players and smartphones, has profound and little understood implications for classical music. Listening to speakers in the living room from the stereo "sweet spot" creates an image spreading the music between the speakers at a distance in front of the listener; but headphone listening, which is fast becoming the de facto standard, creates a very different binaural image which places the music inside the listener's head.

Stereo through speakers places the listener in a good seat in the stalls and creates the most authentic listening experience for those who regularly attend classical concerts. But the reference for new audiences is not the concert hall but headphone listening - "heavily compressed, grainy MP3s delivered through perfectly awful earbuds" - and at their first concert neophytes expect the music to be larger than life and inside their heads. Which it is not; because if the new concertgoer buys affordable tickets for a large hall the music will be coming from a considerable distance outside their heads. Listening from the balcony in London's Festival Hall is, for example, the aural equivalent of looking down a telescope the wrong way, while the cheaper seats in the Albert Hall - home of the revered BBC Proms - are even worse. And, as a reader recently pointed out, it is not just newcomers that are disillusioned with the sound in traditional large concert halls. These problems are compounded by current performance conventions which stipulate authentic instruments, small ensembles and no vibrato for pre-Romantic music. There has been much agonising by Universal Music ceo Max Hole and others as to why live classical music does not connect with younger new audiences. But their proposed solutions, such as applause between movements and informal dress, are simply band aids if the sound - the DNA of music - fails to meet expectations.


Thomas Merton wisely told us that "Technology is made for man, not man for technology". There is a school of thought, and it is one I have considerable sympathy for, that says that classical music should not be changed to accommodate new audiences; particularly as well-intentioned changes may drive away the all-important core audience. But it is important to gaze into the crystal ball occasionally, even if we do not like what we see there.n And, at this point, let's dismiss the suggestion that what is being discussed in this post is dumbing down. Dumbing down is diluting without changing. What is being discussed here is evolutionary change without diluting the power of the music. Copland's observation that when the audience changes, the music changes has been true throughout the history of classical music. The term 'orchestra' is derived from the Greek word for the space occupied by the chorus and the stage in Ancient Greek theatres; so the original orchestra was a space which over time changed into the instrumental ensemble we know today. The size and layout of modern orchestras, their performance style and the halls they play in are no more than conventions - silly or otherwise - which have all changed over time. And those changing references and expectations are not confined to new audiences: Spotify and other streaming services which impose heavy compression on classical music are widely used and accepted by classical musicians.

Giovanni Gabrielli, with his split double choirs, and Gustav Mahler with offstage brass in his Second Symphony are just two of the composers who pioneered using spatial effects to immerse listeners in their music. More recently, heretical solutions such as turning up the bass and introducing amplification to give classical music more slam have been discussed. Contemporary music is better placed to avoid apostasy, and immersive works such as Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco for 8 channel tape (created at Boulez's IRCAM studio) and York Höller's Horizont quadraphonic electronic music (created at Stockhausen's Studio für elektronische Musik des WDR) are products of a period in the 1970s and 80s when new music's preoccupation with spatial effects reflected the (unsuccessful) launch of domestic quadraphonic sound. At the time the major record labels hoped that quadraphonic sound would spark another boom mirroring that triggered by the introduction of stereo in the 1960s. This shortlived flirtation with surround sound resulted in Bernstein's controversial 1973 Rite of Spring which, presciently in view of the current hegemony of headphone listening, placed the listener in the middle of the orchestra. More recently Jonathan Harvey has exploited the spatial possibilities offered by sound projection and diffusion in his Speakings for large orchestra and electronics; a work, incidentally, that, after repeated listenings, I have concluded sounds far better on headphones than speakers.

Any proposal to bridge the gap between the de facto standard of mobile audio and live concerts in mainstream classical music will, inevitably and understandably, provoke a hostile reaction. But I will commit the ultimate heresy by suggesting a one-off experiment - I repeat one-off - of back-to-back concert performances of, say, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; with one performance in conventional concert hall mode and one sound projected to place the audience in the middle of the orchestra, thereby providing a valuable guide to (new) audience reaction. And, staying in heretical mode, it should be possible to use microphones in a concert performance of, say, a Mahler symphony to provide a surround mix (listener in middle of orchestra) made available online in real time in the hall, allowing the audience the choice of listening to the vanilla 'concert' mix with their ears, or to a surround mix using headphones.


At the heart of this debate is the question I posed last year of music to listener, or listener to music? Entrenched in classical music orthodoxy is the view that the listener must be brought to the music. But the dramatic changes in technology, listening habits and lifestyles identified earlier dictate that solutions that go some way to bringing music to the listener need to be at least considered. Remixing Beethoven and Mahler is far too radical to be taken seriously, but there are more subtle ways to change the music to accommodate a changing audience. As explained earlier, one of the five parameters that defines musical sounds is ambience, which is a product of reverberation. The optimum reverberation time of around two seconds for a concert hall is a totally artificial construct determined by historical convention, as music played in an anechoic chamber or the open air generates no reverberation. If a more immersive sound is needed to attract new audiences a progressive shift to more intimate acoustics may provide an acceptably nuanced solution.

One of the most acoustically involving concert halls in the world, Snape Maltings, combines a classic reverberation time of 2.2 seconds with a relatively small sized auditorium of 11,200 cubic metres seating 700. This combination of warm acoustic and compact size gives the sound a signature combination of clarity and slam, and is mirrored in the new 740 seater Saffron Hall in Essex which has an acoustic masterminded by Paul Gillieron, formerly of Arup Associates - the acoustics practice that voiced Snape Maltings and the new Britten Studio at Aldeburgh. Could a move to smaller more intimate venues - the Festival Hall seats 2500 - be part of a beneficial downsizing for classical music? (That topic demands a post to itself!) In the short term digital variable acoustic systems such as the Carmen system from France's Centre Scientifique et Technique du Bâtiment (CSTB) offer a painless way to make hall acoustics flexible and more involving. Systems such as Carmen specifically enhance reverberation and cannot create surround sound mixes, but future generations of these systems could allowing sound projection to become an optional but integral part of classical concerts.


These brainstorming suggestions for bringing the music up close and personal in the concert hall will, inevitably, be controversial. But the record industry has set a clear precedent for breaking the sonic conventions of classical music. I was professionally involved with multi-channel sound while working at EMI in the 1970s, and must confess that the experience left me sceptical about its merits. But the arrival of technically elegant - which 1970s quadraphonics certainly was not - multi-channel systems such as SACD, Blu-ray audio (which supports up to eight lossless audio channels) and FLAC files together with 5.1 headphones and Dolby® Headphone has caused me to rethink my position. This rethinking has also been prompted by recent exposure to the pioneering work of the Catalan contemporary music label Neu Records. I first mentioned Neu Records in a post about their new release of Ramon Humet's music. For this Neu Records offers a conventional stereo mix on CD and surround sound from HD FLAC surround sound files, giving the consumer the choice of music to listener or listener to music. Auditioning via HD FLAC files and a 5.1 system places the listener in the middle of the London Sinfonietta, and when I wrote about the recording a few months ago I said that I really didn't want to be in the middle of the orchestra.


Since making that rather disparaging comment I have come to appreciate that many of classical music's much sought after new audience would like to be among the musicians, because that is where headphone listening places them every day. Subsequent to writing my Ramon Humet post I have enjoyed extended auditioning of the two Neu Records surround sound releases - the other is of Bernat Vivanco's choral music - in conjunction with a very productive discussion with their producer Santi Barguñó. Neu Records are pioneering multi-channel sound and pursuing a vision of, to quote them, "maximising the idea of sound immersion", and the accompanying photos were taken at one of their experimental recording sessions. Santi Barguñó laments that nobody is saying anything about Neu Records' involvement with surround sound, and that is very sad, particularly in view of what classical music gets excited about these days.

In their manifesto Neu Records state that their aim is "to produce music of our time that creates an impact on the listener" and they share the view of Jonathan Harvey, York Höller, Ramon Humet and others that "playback equipment is a tool that permits the creation and reproduction of acoustic spaces". The first two releases from this enterprising new label show that impact can be created without resorting to technical artifice or commercial gimmickry. Ramon Humet's Niwa is quite simply one of the best sounding and most involving new releases I have heard for a long time, and Neu Record's innovative approach to recording needs to be taken very seriously as it is a genuine attempt to bring classical music up close and personal without compromising artistic excellence. So to conclude I am appending some key points from Santi Barguñó's idiomatic emails. This path may be arcane and lengthy; but, believe me, it is a lot more relevant to attracting new audiences than clicking through the classics or encouraging applause between movements and changing what musicians wear.


Santi Barguñó writes - We found your comments very interesting about our surround recording approach in Ramon Humet's article (nobody is saying anything about it, and we really need some feedback as your comments). We thought about posting a comment for giving some extra information (if you think it's a good idea) because, as we have seen, what we are explaining about our recording approach is not very clear in our website and booklets. Not all our recordings are placing the listener in the middle of a circle of musicians. In fact, we plan very carefully (in close collaboration with the composers) which pieces could work better with the musicians placed only in the front or also around the listener, but we still think that our recordings are surround recordings in a different way to many other 5.1 albums because we conceive every sound as a surround object, even if it's placed in the front of a surround recording. This is because we are capturing all the natural mixing of direct sound, early reflections, and reverberation tail of each sound in the real acoustics of the venue, and not working on the resonant layers of the sounds as different layers, separated from the direct sound (as many other producers do with artificial added reverberations in the mixing process). All the reverberation is real in our albums, and not a separated object.

We are critic of the typical frontal approach in surround recordings because most of that recordings are just "adding" some extra reverberation in the rear channels, without any linking point between the sound images of each pair of stereo segments in a 5 channel surround configuration (formed by 5 different stereo segments that needs to be very well related for producing a real surround image). This depends a lot on the distances and angles between 5 main microphones, and we have been working with Mike Williams (from Audio Engineering Society) for getting the best results we can in terms of surround immersion and localization [see accompanying photos], but it's not necessarily applied in recordings with the musicians around the listener.

For example, in Petals, the trio is placed in the front in Niwa, and the other 2 pieces (Jardí de Haikus and Quatre jardins zen) have only percussive elements in the surround channels, planned with the composer for maximizing the idea of sound immersion in a heterophonic japanese garden, which is the basis of both works. Also, we planned how to place the 2 percussionists in the rear part for being completely compatible with the stereo version in terms of phase and image (you listen to that players as if they were placed in a little bit more distant layer of sound in the stereo version), avoiding some specific positions that cause real localization problems rendering a stereo version (as we know that it's the only version of the recordings for almost all our listeners).

In the case of Blanc, only 3 polychoral pieces are recorded with singers around the listener, Obriu-me els llavis, Bubbles, and Le Cri des Bergers (Vivancos place the singers in the same way in live performances), and the resulting stereo image for the CD is not as rich as the surround one, but not critical at all, as Vivancos wanted to produce the feeling of being inside a sound mass, and not having a precise localization image of each voice (all the different voices were very mixed in the circle for avoiding a precise localization of the different layers and getting a very homogeneous sound mass).

As you said, people do not have good surround systems for listening our surround albums, and we are working in a different way for giving sense to our project in terms of surround recording: since we published Blanc, we are organizing surround installation with good speakers in museums (MACBA, Círculo de Bellas Artes,...) and concert halls (Palau de la Música Catalana,...) in Barcelona and Madrid, for 80 people maximum, and it's being very successful here. We think it's a very interesting new way for recorded music. We are writing some texts for our new site about it (ready next February), because outside Spain nobody knows this things, but we are a very small company (only 4 people working), and it's a very slow process! Thank you very much and congratulations for your blog, really necessary and stimulating.

Opening quotes are from Less Noise More Soul: The Search for Balance in the Art, Technology, and Commerce of Music edited by David Flitner. Header image via Classic FM, other photos via Neu Records. No review samples or other payment in kind received for this post; I would like to express my thanks to Santi Barguñó for his generous co-operation. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Importance of the negative view


It seems it is not so easy, or wise, to express a negative view after all. But I do still recommend Jerry Mander's book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Benjamin Britten backed Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger, who has died at the grand old age of 94, had a little-known connection with Benjamin Britten. In 1955 Seeger was convicted of contempt of Congress six years after he had appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. After his conviction and before his successful appeal, Seeger obtained the court’s permission to tour England. In 1961 he played at London's Royal Albert Hall in a concert promoted by the British “Pete Seeger Committee” which had been formed to support the embattled musician; Paul Robeson was president, the great ballad singer Ewan MacColl was chairman, and the sponsors were Doris Lessing, Sean O’Casey and none other than Benjamin Britten. It is not known if Britten attended the London concert and the header image is a montage created by me for a 2012 post. But even though Seeger and Britten seem an unlikely duo there is a music connection: Britten set and Seeger recorded the folk song The Water is Wide, also known as O Waly, Waly. More on that 1961 Pete Seeger committee here and the story of his mother, the forgotten classical violinist and music teacher Constance de Clyver Edson is here.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Eternal feminine or eternal spin?


In May 2006 I ran a post lamenting the absence of women composers at that year's BBC Proms season. In those days there were very few people highlighting the gender imbalance in classical music, and that post is just one of many on the theme that have appeared On An Overgrown Path. In recent years a number of rather more influential people have, thankfully, spoken out about the under-representation of women in classical music. Depite their efforts the problem remains and continues to require urgent attention. Which does not stop me feeling distinctly uncomfortable about the artistic director of London's Southbank Centre Jude Kelly using the paucity of women in orchestras as a way to spin the launch of a rather underwhelming new Southbank season as seen above. Of course it is good that Marin Alsop, Lisa Batiashvili, Martha Argerich and Mitsuko Uchida are performing and that there is music by Stevie Wishart and Anna Clyne. But Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic in an all Beethoven programme is not exactly a game changer, and isn't it time the Southbank Centre and elsewhere started widening the view by showcasing the huge amount of fine music by women composers who are, sadly, no longer with us? For further confirmation that activism and spin do not mix well read this topical story.

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How new technology did not save the record industry


Good to see women and contemporary music triumphing in the classical categories at that most self-regarding of industry events, the Grammys. In her acceptance speech for three classical Grammys composer Maria Schneider "took the opportunity to lambast music piracy, calling it "legalized theft."" and her multiple Grammy winning CD Winter Morning Walks had to be 'fan-funded' by artistShare instead of being brought to market by a piracy-stricken major label. Just a few hours before seeing the LA Times report of the 2014 Grammys I had been reading the newly published Less Noise More Soul: the Search for Balance in the Art, Technology, and Commerce of Music. In this commendable anthology veteran radio presenter Rob Reinhart suggests the distinction between thief and victim in piracy is not as clear cut as the music industry would like us to believe. Here is the relevant passage:
"Have you seen one of these?"
It was a woman from Columbia Records who was accompanying an artist to our studio for an Acoustic Café taping. It was March 2002, and the device she was waving at me was an Apple iPod. She thought it would "save the record industry" because of the storage capability. To demonstrate, she showed me the entire Beach Boys catalog that was loaded on her iPod. To be funny, asked why this Columbia Records employee had the complete catalog of one of Capitol Record's most enduring acts in her pocket. She answered that her friend worked for the Boy's publisher and loaded it up for her. For free.
Industry saved.
Figure it this way: If an iPod holds five thousand songs, and each was purchased legally, the average person would spend about five thousand dollars to fill up one iPod. Who has an extra five grand to buy music? So, of course people fill their iPods with stolen music....
Photo of my iPod, which is loaded with 100% legal music, comes from the post Label me obsessed. I borrowed Less Noise More Soul: the Search for Balance in the Art, Technology, and Commerce of Music edited by David Flitner from Norwich library. In this . Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).Also on Facebook and Twitter

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Art for music's sake


That self-portrait by Joni Mitchell for her album Both Sides Now has to be some of the best cover art ever. I was moved to post it by reading Katherine Monk's Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Seeing things in a different light

'I believe I can thank Columbia University, among other things, for having helped me learn the value of unsuccess' - Thomas Merton writing in Love and Living
Syncretic light was captured by me in the lovingly restored L'Abbaye de la Lucerne in Normandy which hosts classical music concerts, and the photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Not so mellow cello


Some people think, probably with some justification, that I complain about the BBC too much. So I am sharing this comment which was added by Frances Wilson to my recent post about the programme Paul Tortelier at the BBC.
Asinine, lazy television. Much as I enjoyed seeing clips of Tortelier, an artist whom I much admired, and was lucky to hear live as a child, I found the format simplistic and Petroc Trelawny's contribution largely irrelevant. Shame on the BBC, and especially BBCFour!
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Culture does not die - it reincarnates


Those who value wisdom and insight will be saddened that John Terauds's Musical Toronto blog is lapsing into silence. John's decision to break the news and then go out blogging - which he does so well - is a model of humility in an age of histrionics and remorseless self-promotion. In another post Musical Toronto describes classical music as "an artform in profound transition" and the same applies to blogging. It is pleasing that in his valedictory post John says he is taking "a prolonged break" from music journalism rather than abandoning it completely, and I suspect he will be back in the future.

John Teraud's musings on an artform in transition were sparked by the continuing tiresome announcements of the death of classical music, announcements that are being joined by pronouncements on the death of the blog. All of which are, of course, nonsense: culture forms do not die, they reincarnate. Blogging is being reincarnated in two different forms - soundbites on Twitter, Facebook and other micro-media, and long-form writing on tradional blogging platforms, and there is evidence both of ennui with the vulture journalism that prevails in music micro-blogs and a revival of interest in online non-partisan long-form writing. The latter is an art form that has been effectively exorcised from the mainstream media, and my prediction is that Boulezian, Entartete Musik, Musical Assumptions, The Rambler, A View from the Podium, Where's Runnicles? and other informed online long-form writing will replace the mainstream classical music media, while the micro-blogs will be drowned by the white noise of Twitter. Impermanence prevails in blogging as it prevails in classical music. Change is a constant in all culture forms, and classical music's biggest enemy is not death; its biggest enemy is an establishment which preaches change while covertly pursuing a self-interested agenda to maintain the lucrative status quo - an agenda that has so successfully infiltrated a number of first generation music blogs.

Have a great break John Terauds, and come back when you are ready. I do not know if On An Overgrown Path has a place in reincarnated blogging. But one of my next posts will continue to swim against the tide with an example of extreme long-form blogging offering some heretical thoughts on how classical music can reincarnate itself.

Header image shows Wisdom & Insight CD from the Tashi Lhunpo monks who featured in my Forbidden Music post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

This is the house that Elgar built


“I mean successful - but that is rock star stuff” was the comment made by a reader about the chateau once owned by Jacques Louissier when it featured here last year. Which started me thinking about a series of posts showcasing the houses of famous classical musicians. But the problem is that despite - or perhaps because of - rock star salaries there is very little information in the public domain about the homes of contemporary classical musicians. So this occasional series is kicking off with the house that Elgar built; or actually didn’t build, because Severn House, 42 Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead was constructed in 1888 for the celebrated portrait artist Edwin Long and extensively refurbished for the composer before he took up residence in 1912. The front doors of Severn House with their brass panels depicting men in armour are seen in the header photo. The house was demolished in 1937 so all we have are archive photos which I have digitally enhanced. However, despite the poor quality of the photos, we can see this is rock star stuff Victorian style with the mahogany panelled entrance hall with a Carthaginian mosaic floor leading into the sixty foot long picture gallery seen below.


A grand flight of stairs led to an orientally-themed drawing room with a marble fireplace, and to the the imposing music room seen below. The music room was created from the original artist's studio, and had a billiard room leading off it.


Below is a sketch of Severn House by Pauline Collett whose excellent but out-of-print book Elgar Lived Here this article draws on. The music Elgar composed at Severn House matched the grandeur of his surroundings and included The Crown of India, The Music Makers, Falstaff, incidental music for The Starlight Express, and The Sanguine Fan.


But, despite his opulent lifestyle, Elgar’s time at Severn House was not idyllic. The outbreak of war in 1914 caused him financial problems, and the composer spent more time at the modest rented cottage in the Sussex countryside where he composed his Cello Concerto - a masterwork that eclipsed all the music written among the pomp and circumstance of his London home. In 1919 a burglary at Severn House unsettled Elgar and prompted him to put the house on the market for £7000. But it proved difficult to sell and the Elgar’s were still living there when the composer’s wife died in 1920. Severn House was finally sold by auction in 1921, and Elgar moved to a small apartment in central London before returning to his native Worcestershire where he died in 1934. As mentioned previously Elgar composed the incidental music for The Starlight Express at Severn House, and there is more on the links between that play and the occult Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in my post Elgar and the occult. Information on the homes of rather more contemporary musicians will be gratefully received. Meanwhile, here is an exclusive look at Benjamin Britten’s somewhat less opulent birthplace.

Sketch of Severn House credit Elgar Lived Here by Pauline Collett. 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, January 22, 2014

Classical radio loses yet more audience


In response to my earlier post How classical music found a flourishing new audience a reader has pointed out the following news item:
A court in Diss, Norfolk yesterday heard how a police raid last August on a smallholding near Thetford uncovered a cannabis factory. Giving evidence Detective Sergeant Peel said that more than 200 plants were found in the raided premises. Peter Storling age 42 from Tottington pleaded not guilty to producing a banned substance for sale on the grounds that the majority of the plants were dead. Storling explained that he read a New Zealand press report describing how cannabis plants flourished when played classical music. So he played his plants BBC Radio 3 all day, with the result seen in the photo above. The hearing continues today.
As Brion Gysin said 'Nothing is true but everything is permitted'; however the true photo comes via Rhymes & Politics. 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.

How classical music found a flourishing new audience

A Gisborne man played classical music to his cannabis plants to encourage the crop to flourish, police say. Police uncovered the sophisticated growing operation with the potential to earn $500,000 annually last year. At the Gisborne District Court yesterday Verdun Sturgus Kemp, 21, pleaded guilty to cultivating cannabis. He was jailed for two years and one month.
Detective Sergeant Wayne Beattie told Fairfax media that Kemp controlled the lighting, temperature and ventilation to grow 287 cannabis plants in his spare room, and a radio was set up to play classical music to the plants. Kemp told him the plants responded better to classical music. Sergeant Beattie said it was a "well-orchestrated growing operation".
That story comes from the Fairfax News in New Zealand. Related trips include Could LSD have saved Tchaikovsky? and JSB on LSD. While elsewhere Elgar takes a trip, which leads to the positively Lebrechtesque Sex, drugs and classical music. Those cannabis plants would have responded best to Berio and Cage according to another post. Just more proof that classical music can change the world.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Classical music as a journey of joy and self-discovery

The West has discovered how to tap so many powerful sources of energy in nature but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age. Classical music, which is designed to take advantage of this hidden inner reserve and utilize it to the maximum extent, offers us the best opportunity to overcome these pressures and transform our lives into the meaningful, integrated whole that we desire.
That passage comes from the Preface to Introduction to Tantra by Lama Yeshe, but I took the liberty of changing the words 'The practice of tantra' in the final sentence to 'Classical music'; my sleight of hand is not entirely inappropriate as the foreword to the 2001 edition of Introduction to Tantra is by Philip Glass. The practice of Tantra is one of the most misunderstood of Eastern traditions and Lama Yeshe describes it as a journey of joy and self-discovery. As was the music making of the sadly departed Claudio Abbado.

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In classical music all that Twitters is not gold


Recent readership levels for On An Overgrown Path have been notably high and there is also an interesting trend behind those positive headline numbers. My recent post We need to widen the definition of forbidden music attracted few comments and generated little social media activity. Yet the number of people reading it - which is the true measure of success - has been exceptionally high. In fact the readership for the forbidden music post is significantly higher than other popular recent posts which have generated considerably greater buzz on Facebook and Twitter. This trend should be noted by all those classical music marketeers who confuse levels of social media activity with true measures of success.

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich all sound like film music


In a typically thoughtful contribution to my post Why not play the premier league composers more often? Richard Bratby - who is professionally involved in classical music - mused "speaking solely from my own experience - there is a very noticeable falling-off in ticket sales when a symphony orchestra programmes pre-Beethoven repertoire, irrespective of the quality of the performance or the music, or the energy with which it is marketed. But why?" Now Kea has answered Richard's question with the following comment:
Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, etc, all sound more or less like film music (or -- more accurately -- film music sounds more or less like recycled bits of Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, etc) and therefore don't require any intellectual involvement or serious effort to listen to. Understanding the music of Bach, Mozart or Haydn, etc (or for that matter Schumann, Brahms, Webern, Cage, etc) actually requires people to listen actively rather than being pulled along by emotional propaganda and rhetoric, so it's no wonder they are declining in popularity. There is, in fact, quite a lot of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, etc, on US public radio. Comments I've read from people living in the US suggest they are very unhappy that these composers are heard more than e.g. Elgar, Glazunov, Pettersson, [insert other film-music-sounding composer here]
I have to say that I totally agree with Kea. In fact I considered writing a post saying very much the same thing. But, quite wrongly, I shelved it rather than face a social media storm triggered by the very politically incorrect suggestion that Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich sound like film music. (Before tweeting please note that the key line in the comment is that "film music sounds more or less like recycled bits of Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, etc".) Kea's comment is particularly relevant as BBC Radio 3 and others are currently touting film music as the new classical, and the observation that great music "actually requires people to listen actively rather than being pulled along by emotional propaganda and rhetoric" says it all in just fifteen words. Music from before Beethoven (and also, incidentally, from after Shostakovich) no longer makes the box office hum because dumbing down has dispensed with active listening, and, instead, tries to win new audiences by media fuelled emotional propaganda and rhetoric. If classical music wants to expand its audience it must revive the lost art of listening.

Header image is, of course, from Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice which, famously, used the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony in its soundtrack. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Paul Tortelier demonstrates the perils of television

Last night's BBC Four TV programme Paul Tortelier at the BBC told us more about today's BBC than it did about Tortelier. Of course it was good to see priceless footage from the archives of the legendary cellist instead of the Perry Como and Andy Williams Christmas specials, the documentary about Abba and the re-screening of Mary Poppins that have filled recent schedules of the BBC's flagship arts channel. But, with big savings to be made to pay for all those executive golden handshakes, this was television on the cheap. For sixty minutes prime time TV the budget ran to no more than a quick trawl through the archives plus half a day in an empty radio studio for Petroc Trelawny to record the links. Yes, the programme was billed as 'Paul Tortelier at the BBC'. But there were no interviews with those who actually worked with Tortelier (he only died in 1990), no mention of - yet alone samples from - Tortelier at BBC Radio where his distinguished career Proms career stretched from 1948 to 1989; in fact there was nothing other than archive TV footage and links from a presenter who had no connection with, and little affinity for, the great cellist. And the programme budget didn't even stretch to technical competence: the links by Trelawny were recorded with noticeable bass cut on the sound which meant the quality of the 2014 commentary was worse than on the archive material. Rather more seriously, the high resolution colour links were juxtaposed insensitively with the monochrome archive material and even crashed the last notes of an extract from the Elgar Concerto.

But under all this shoddiness was something rather more unpleasant. Towards the end of the programme Petroc Trelawny explained that in his later years Paul Tortelier became pre-occupied with topics such as the power of corporations, globalisation and - nuanced raising of eyebrows - the perils of television. Then he informed us that Tortelier became increasingly eccentric as he grew older, so, without further exploration of the alleged eccentricity, the programme ended with some harmless Chopin recorded in the 1950s and introduced by an unctuous TV presenter of the period who, if she is still with us, must be a perfect candidate for a presentation job on today's BBC Radio 3. In a thoughtful tribute elsewhere Tortelier was described as "a social idealist and peace activist". Do we really live in an age when someone holding views that challenge the orthodoxy on topics such as the power of corporations, globalisation and the perils of television is considered an eccentric? What classical music needs is more mad geniuses like Paul Tortelier in his later years, and less bland corporate media executives and presenters of the kind who in last night's BBC programme threw away an opportunity to make compelling and distinctive television.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Kitten on the harpsichord keys


In May 2013 I wrote the following in a post composed while travelling in Languedoc:
The cat seen above 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 photo a few days ago on the front porch of the little house in Languedoc, and it may be more than just charming image, as Scott Ross’ biographer Michel Proulx tells us that the harpsichord master adopted a black and white female cat while living at Assas. So could we be looking at a hitherto unknown member of a great music lineage?
Since writing that post I have found the archive photo below of Scott Ross in front of his house in Assas taken in the late 1980s. When viewed with the photo above, it seems to confirm that a great harpsichord lineage lives on in Languedoc in feline form. Scott Ross' account of Scarlatti's Harpsichord Sonatas plays as I write. If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year - buy these .....


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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why not play the premier league composers more often?


Much has been written about classical music's unhealthy obsession with composer anniversaries. So it is time to turn attention to the equally unhealthy obsession with music written in the twelve decades between 1854 (Wagner composed Das Reingold) and 1971 (Shostakovich composed his 15th Symphony). In fact the obsession with composer anniversaries and the obsession with music from those decades has created a perfect storm, with anniversaries for Mahler, Wagner, Verdi and Britten followed by Richard Strauss this year and, wait for it, Sibelius and Nielsen in 2015. In fact a newcomer to classical music looking at concert programmes, listening to the radio or scanning CD release schedules, could be forgiven for thinking that the music written before Wagner is of little consequence. Which is, of course, terribly and dangerously wrong.

There are a number of reasons for this unhealthy obsession. Musicians themselves are partly to blame: specialisation means that the pre-1854 repertoire has become the province of specialist ensembles and specialist conductors, with the result that Mozart and Mahler now rarely meet on the concert platform. Which is a nonsensical state of affairs, as Bruno Walter and other past giants of the podium proved. Compounding this is the politically correct view that a modern symphony orchestra cannot and should not play Bach and his contemporaries, more nonsense which is exposed by Sir Adrian Boult's recordings of the Brandenburgs with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also a condescending assumption that because audiences like Mahler, they will only like music that sounds like Mahler. Which, again, is nonsense: audiences like Mahler because it is good music, and audiences also like good music from before 1854. Of course Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and their peers are first division composers. But above them is a premiere league populated by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Classical music wants to expand its audience. So why not play the music of the premier league composers more often?

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

We need to widen the definition of forbidden music


One of the highlights of 2013 was the publication of Michael Haas' Forbidden Music. While working as a producer for Decca Haas was responsible for the invaluable Entartete Musik series which provided a retrospective of composers and works banned by the Nazis; at the foot of this post is the CD of music by Berthold Goldschmidt from that series. Haas is currently research director of the Jewish Music Institute for Suppressed Music, based at the School of African and Oriental Studies of the University of London and is also chief executive of Coralfox, a classical music consultancy and production company. In Forbidden Music, which almost certainly will become the standard reference work on the subject, Haas looks at the Jewish composers and musicians banned by the Third Reich for being 'degenerate', and the consequences for music throughout the 20th century. With a subtitle of The Jewish composers banned by the Nazis it is quite clear what the agenda of this meticulously researched and argued book is, and from the opening sentence with its quote from Hans Sach's celebrated monologue on German art, Forbidden Music concerns itself solely with one genre of suppressed music. Given the scope and importance of Entartete Musik, that single-mindedness is quite understandable. But, on the other hand, this failure to even recognise the existence of a huge corpus of forbidden music outside Nazi Germany brings the risk of mono-culturalism.

In orders of magnitude, the genocide of the Jews by the Third Reich ranks as one of the greatest humanitarian atrocities in history, and the music suppressed by the Nazis is of major artistic importance. But there are many other less well-known examples of persecution and suppression which must not be forgotten, some of which involved Jews. For instance, in the 15th century the multicultural idyll of al-Andalus was destroyed when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews and Moors from Spain. Jordi Savall has been a major force in rehabilitating the music of the Sephardic Jews, but featured below is another fine CD which celebrates the forbidden music of these exiles: on it the young Moroccan counter tenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam and the Lachrimae Consort celebrate music from El jardin oscuro.



Two centuries before the Jews and Moors were driven out of Spain, the Cathars had been exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade of the Catholic Church in neighbouring Languedoc. An estimated 10,000 men, women and children were massacred in the town of Béziers alone and, such was the effectiveness of Pope Innocent III's final solution, that none of the forbidden music of the Cathars survives. Jordi Savall is again at the forefront of reviving suppressed music with his commemoration of the Albigensian Crusade in his Forgotten Kingdom book/CD project, but attention also needs to be drawn to the speculative recreation of Cathar music on the CD seen above. On Montsegur: La Tragédie Cathare the Québecian early music group La Nef re-imagine Cathar music and reflect the parallels with Eastern traditions in the Cathar's beliefs with their use of oud and Egyptian percussion.

One of the worst human and cultural genocides in history was triggered by the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama estimates that 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese occupation and more than six thousand monasteries and shrines have been destroyed, and under Chinese rule religious practice including scared music was banned until 1979. (The prevalent double-standards in classical music mean that those who protest loudly about the lamentable human rights situation in Russia remain inexplicably silent about China's infinitely worse record). In the 13th century the Albigensian Crusage extinguished Cathar culture, but, fortunately, Tibetan Buddhism with its sacred music has survived in exile in India. One of the major monasteries in exile is that of Tashi Lhunpo, which is now located in Karnataka in southern India. We are fortunate that the Tashi Lhunpo monks have made several outstanding recordings of what the Chinese consider degenerate music; their CD of sacred music depicting the Buddhist journey of consciousness through Bardo, the intermediate period between death and rebirth, is seen below. The recordings by the Tashi Lhunpo monks, which are released by the Tashi Lhunpo UK Trust, are made on location in India and are notable for their impressive sound. Also available are Tashi ringtones offering "enlightenment for smartphones".

There is also a CD from OgreOgress, a label which supports projects benefiting Tibetans in exile, of sacred Tibetan instrumental music performed by the Tashi Lhunpo monks. This recording was made in the reverberant acoustic of the Basilica of Saint Adalbert in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the sound of the dungchen (Tibetan longhorns) is the ultimate test for the bass response of an audio system. The limited edition OgreOgress disc was released to publicise the plight of the head of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and second most important Tibetan spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama. The 11th Panchen Lama was born in 1989 and, after being identified as a reincarnation by the Dalai Lama, disappeared in suspicious circumstances in 1995. In 1996 the Chinese government confirmed that the seven year old was being held in "protective custody", making him the youngest political prisoner in history. To this day the whereabouts or condition of the Panchen Lama remain unknown.



Under a widely accepted but still disputed interpretation of the Qur'an all music is forbidden music, but despite this, music and dance has remained central to the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism. However, in an attempt to secularise and Westernize, a law was passed by the newly established Turkish state in 1925 prohibiting Sufi sacred ceremonies (tariqa) at which music and dance were performed. This prohibition meant the closing of the traditional dervish lodges (tekkes) where Sufi brotherhoods met, but Sufism continued in Turkey as an underground tradition. In 1950 a temporary softening in the Turkish government's stance triggered the revival of Sufi music and dance as practised by the Mevlevi (followers of Rumi) and other brotherhoods. But this revival positioned Sufi music and dance as a folkloric rather than religious tradition, with the Whirling Dervishes established as the Cirque du Soleil of the mystical world. Kudsi Erguner is one of the Turkish musicians who has worked to keep Sufi music away from the dead hand of the entertainment industry. He performs Sufi music on the traditional ney reed flute as a vibrant and dynamic art form and his acclaimed collaborations include working with theatre director Peter Brook and world music pioneer Peter Gabriel. Below is one of many CDs that he has recorded.


Forbidden music is a broad church - in more ways than one. Both Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were un-reformed Catholics in 16th century England when those celebrating the Roman Rite were being persecuted, and works such as Tallis' Lamentations Of Jeremiah are thought to have been composed for covert private performance. By contrast, at the same time in Catholic France clandestine 'wilderness assemblies' of Protestants in the Cévennes were singing the Huguenot Psalter to music by composers such as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink. More recently Bach became forbidden music whan Pau Casals refused to perform in his native Spain following the victory of Franco's fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War; instead Casals performed his beloved Bach at the Prades festival just across the French border. In 1971 John Joubert's Second Symphony, which commemorates the Sharpeville massacre, was banned in South Africa by the government controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation and the order forbidding performances was only lifted following the intervention of Nelson Mandela twenty years later. During the Greek military junta from 1969 to 1974 the music of Mikis Theodorakis was banned. On the LP seen below Maria Farandouri accompanied by John Williams sings Theodorakis’ To Yelasto Pedi from the soundtrack of the legendary 1969 film Z, a film that became an international symbol of opposition to the Greek military junta.


Almost all the preceeding examples are of music forbidden by authoritarian regimes. But music can also be forbidden in democracies. In 1949 William Grant Still's opera Troubled Island became the first major opera composed by an African-American to be presented on an American stage when it was premiered by New York City Opera. At its opening night the opera received twenty-two curtain calls from a sold-out house and was judged a resounding success by those present. But press reviews were perversely negative and the production closed after three performances, effectively making Troubled Island forbidden music.

William Grant Still's opera was, allegedly, victim of racial and political intrigue within the classical music establishment. But intrigues of a different kind look likely to define forbidden music in the future, with the hegemony of Amazon and iTunes and the associated death of bricks and mortar music retailing meaning that control of the availability of recorded music is now in the hands of a self-interested commercial nexus. Despite promises of a digital long tail, you will have considerable difficulty buying* the CD from Rachid Ben Abdeslam seen at the head of this post. This despite the disc winning awards, despite a 2012 release date, and despite Rachid Ben Abdeslam making his Metropolitan Opera New York debut in 2013 singing Abdeslam in Handel's Giulio Cesare, a performance praised by Anthony Tommasini as having "vocal sheen". For reasons unknown the highly recommended El jardin oscuro, which is released on the small French independent ADF-Studio SM label, failed to achieve international distribution, and as a result has become an example of 21st century forbidden music. Michael Haas' book and his recordings documenting Entartete Musik represent musical scholarship at its very best. But our world view is widening and we now need to widen the definition of forbidden music. Is there a record company and a book publisher courageous enough to commission a Forbidden Music of the World project?



* My copy of El jardin oscuro was found in the shop of the monastery of Sainte-Madeleind du Barroux, a source for several other examples of forbidden music 2.0. Readers unable to make the trip to Le Barroux can buy the CD or a download from the ADF-Bayard website which is in French.

Michael Haas' Forbidden Music was a requested review sample. All CDs/LPs from my personal collection and no other freebies involved. 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.

Monday, January 13, 2014

They've opened a gulag for words

They've opened a new gulag. The gulag for words.

I go there every week, taking with me a shopping bag containing some fresh fruit, a bar of soap and a couple of tins of condensed milk. I call to a prisoner at random, then wait in the visitors' room with the gesturing crowd. The words file one by one out of a little door and stand in front of us on the other side of the wire. Pale. Trembling. Haggard. Shattered.

Talk! barks the guard as he patrols the corridor that divides us, banging the grill with his keys.

No one responds. Not the words, because their jaws are visibly broken. Nor the visitors because, as they suddenly realise - they really should have understood this earlier - the gulag has taken away their best words.

Visit's over, the guard shouts, drawing a curtain we hadn't noticed before.

Some barely audible words burst out, from which side of the grill no one could tell. Probably words of goodbye.
That poem titled The Gulag for Words is by Abdellatif Laâbi and the photo, which was taken by me in Morocco, first appeared in a 2010 post titled I am in an even larger prison. Born in Fez, Morocco, Abdellatif Laâbi founded the acclaimed literary and political periodical Souffles in 1966. He was imprisoned in 1972 by the repressive regime of Moroccan King Hassan II for "crimes of opinion" (yes, there is such a crime) and was tortured during his eight years in prison. Following his release Abdellatif Laâbi left Morocco and has since lived in France where he has received a number of awards. On a new CD titled L'Oeil du Coeur (Eye of the Heart) Abdellatif Laâbi recites his poetry with accompaniment from fellow Morrocans oud virtuoso Driss El Maloumi and vocalist Naziha Meftah. The CD comes from the enterprising Institut du Monde Arabe label, who really should have picked up the minor but irritating editing error at 3.16" on track 22. The poetry is in French and Arabic and there are no English translations, but don't let that deter you as Abdellatif Laâbi recites his poetry as lyrically as Driss El Maloumi plays the oud. World music is currently going through a bad patch with too many releases stuck in the ECM pioneered world music meets easy listening rut. So it is good to be able to recommend L'Oeil du Coeur as a brave excursion outside prevailing world music comfort zones.

Translation of The Word Gulag is by André Naffis-Sahely and comes via the Poetry Translation Centre where more of Abdellatif Laâbi's poems can be read. Note that I have presumptuously amended the title and made three other minor changes to the translation to, hopefully, aid comprehension; the unedited translation is available on the linked website. No freebies involved in this post. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. 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). No freebies involved in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.