Friday, February 28, 2014

Different musical forms but the same essential truth

He sees a divine inspiration which comes to humanity from time to time in different forms which are in harmony with the culture of a certain people at a certain time. Different forms but the same essential truth.
Those words describe the Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). The theme of different cultural forms but the same essential truth suffuses a new CD that finds the mystical intoxication of Sufism in the music of Dowland and other Renaissance composers, as well as in contemporary Middle Eastern and European music. Divine Madness: Souls in Exile brings together mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, lutenist Sofie Vanden Eynde, and on oud and vocals Moneim Adwan who is seen above - video sample here. Released on the independent Belgian label Cypres Records, the CD explores how music has the universal power to unsettle the soul; a thesis that also provides the subtext of Lutz Kirchhof's recently featured Lute music for Witches and Alchemists. Divine Madness, which includes an excellent multi-lingual essay by musicologist Annemarie Peeters, counters the austerity of downloads by reviving the lost art of the concept album. And staying with essential truths, that header quote is from Dr H.J. Witteveen's recommended overview of the ecumenical tradition of Universal Sufism founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan.

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More maestros, masterpieces and madness


To celebrate Norman Lebrecht leading the charge against the "shamed" Gustavo Dudamel I am offering Overgrown Path readers the chance to win two exclusive prizes. One goes to the first reader to identify who that is in the photo up close and personal with Gustavo. Another is for the first correct answer to this question: which cultural commentator was invited to give the pre-concert talk in Los Angeles before the Dude's performance of Mahler's Third Symphony on January 24th 2012? Both lucky prize winners will receive a shredded copy of Lebrecht's Maestros, Masterpieces & Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry.

Header photo was taken by BBC producer Paul Frankl and comes via Slipped Disc. I apologise for any possible transgression of copyright; but as Pau Casals asked rhetorically, does being an artist - even the mere author of On An Overgrown Path - exempt them from their obligations as a person? So, in this instance, mea culpa. As always, any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be reluctantly removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Late night thoughts on listening to news about Venezuela

'An affront to human dignity is an affront to me; and to protest against injustice is a matter of conscience. Are human rights of less importance to an artist than to other men? Does being an artist exempt him from his obligations as a man? If anything, the artist has an even greater responsibility, because he has been granted special sensitivities and perceptions and because his voice may be heard when others may not. Who, indeed, should be more concerned than the artist about the defense of liberty and free inquiry? Such fundamentals are essential to his creativity' - Pau Casals had it right as did - dare I say it? - someone else.
Book is Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall. I haven't read it and don't intend to, but it makes an appropriate header graphic. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Classical music is not a safe suburban pastime

'Surrealist research along with alchemic research presents a remarkable unity of purpose. The philosopher's stone is nothing other than a thing, which should be given to man's imagination to take forcible revenge on everything, and after years of taming the spirit and crazy submission, here we go again, attempting finally to free this imagination by the long, huge, reasoned deregulation of the senses' - André Breton Second Manifesto 1930
In his notes for Music for Witches and Alchemists* lutenist Lutz Kirchhof describes how witchcraft used music and dance to stimulate the life-forces in an atmosphere that was congenial but at the same time mysterious and dreamlike; which echoes the founder of surrealism André Breton's view of alchemy as a tool to deregulate the senses. In a 2012 post I wrote about Michael Maier's Occult Art of Fugue and a transcription for lute of one of Maier's Atlanta Fugiens features on Music for Witches and Alchemists. Lutz Kirchhof's thesis is that by modulation and other devices the Renaissance and Baroque composers for lute transformed human consciousness by musical alchemy. Music as an entheogen - a tool for transcendence and revelation - is a theme that recurs On An Overgrown Path, from Aldous Huxley's revelatory hearing of Bach's B-minor Suite for Orchestra, through Hazrat Inayat Khan's teaching that "spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations" and medical research explaining how music creates euphoria, to Wagner's hypnagogia inspired - "mysterious and dreamlike" - prelude to Das Rheingold and a Jonathan Harvey String Quartet triggering a transcendental "crossing over". Classical music as a tool to deregulate the senses is diametrically opposed to the current positioning of classical music as a safe suburban pastime; which may explain its difficulties in attracting younger audiences. But some alchemists do come with a health warning.

* Sony's CD Music for Witches and Alchemists, which was released in 2000, can be bought from amazon uk, but UK independent record retailers cannot supply it because Sony's UK distribution arm does not stock it. Which does rather confirm my prediction that we are moving towards a new type of forbidden music.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ruminating on success


Recent adventures in classical amnesia took me back to the Third Symphony 'The Song of the Night' by Karol Szymanowski in the compelling recording by Antal Dorati and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. What is remarkable is not that Szymanowski set the poetry of the Sufi master Rumi, but that he set it in 1916. In the intervening century Szymanowski has failed to reach the audience he deserves, but Rumi has become a best seller. So using the criteria currently applied to classical music, Rumi has succeeded and Szymanowski has not. But is that really true? Here is Stephen Schwarz writing in The Other Islam
If Rumi is the best-selling poet in America today, in most English-language editions of his writings, Islam and metaphysics have been extracted like internal organs from his verse and it falls to the idiom of the gift card. A Jew of Christian who desires to attain the peace of the Sufi without entering into Islam will probably not gain much by attempting a Sufism lite, which is comparable to celebrity Kabbalah, any more than one would a tourist pilgrimage through Catholic cathedrals.
I took the header photo during last year's trip to Egypt at the shrine of the thirteenth century Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in Luxor. The mosque was built over the remains of the pharaonic Temple of Luxor. When the famous Temple was excavated in the nineteenth century the mosque with its Sufi shrine was preserved perched high above the Temple, which can be seen in the background of my photo. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2013. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When you hear hoofbeats think beyond Gregorian chant


Last year Universal Music ceo Max Hole famously declared that the abolition of formal dress is a sine qua non for classical music's survival. This year the biggest classical sales by far to date have been achieved by an album from Univeral Music's Decca label made by musicians who have literally vowed to wear formal dress for the rest of their lives. News that the latest album from the Benedictines of Mary has, like the nuns previous two albums, topped the classical charts will come as no surprise to those who remember the slew of Gregorian best sellers that started in 1994 with the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Yet, despite this, classical music's movers and shakers continue to view the sales success of monastic Sisters and Brothers with condescension. Which is very short-sighted.

Educator, artist and Sufi adept Shems Friedlander is the author of a popular book titled When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra: Talks on Sufism. The moral of the book's title is that cultural conditioning means that when we hear hoofbeats we immediately conclude horses are approaching, even though zebras make the same sound. Similarly, when we hear of the sales success of Gregorian chant, we immediately conclude that this is just another example of the dreaded dumbing down. But Shems Friedlander's objective is to make the reader see things in a different way, and, classical music can learn a lot from his teaching.

The perennial sales success of Gregorian chant may be just another example of dumbing down - horses hooves. Or it may be telling us that people are buying large numbers of albums by the Benedictines of Mary because this music fills a vital need in their lives - zebras' hooves. If the latter is true, and personally I believe it is, classical music is missing a major opportunity. And relax, that opportunity does not mean endless albums of chant: because the plainsong and hymns of the Benedictines of Mary are part of a perennial wisdom tradition that has also inspired notable contemporary composers including Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, John Cage, Valentin Silvestrov, Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Jonathan Harvey, Bernat Vivancos, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Tavener.

Gregorian chant sells in huge numbers, and so would many outstanding contemporary expressions of perennial wisdom if given the chance. Seen above is the Nonesuch recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony; after its 1992 release this album became the most successful recording of a new classical composition in the history of the record industry, reaching number 3 on the British pop charts and selling over a million copies worldwide. Which is considerably more than Gustavo Dudamel's 'me too' Zarathustra will ever sell for Universal Music's Deutsche Grammophon label.

Like Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Benedictines of Mary are tapping into the mind, body and spirit market which in the US is now worth $11 billion dollars, compared with a paltry for $200 million for classical albums. Transcendentally inclined contemporary music, if marketed persuasively, could also grab a share of that multi-billion market. And talking of transcendental sales figures, don't forget that Rumi is America's best selling poet despite being not only a mystic but also a Muslim. So memo to classical music marketeers: when you hear hoofbeats think beyond Gregorian chant. And an additional memo to Decca: do check for excess baggage.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Late night thought listening to Silvestrov's Fifth Symphony


Would the world really be a worse place if we had one less performance of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony and one more of Valentin Silvestrov's Fifth?

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Music that makes no noise of intrusion


My world and my music are never one and the same. Which means my music of the moment varies from day to day. Last night dependent arising dictated that it was the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov's Stille Lieder - unmissable sample here. These songs deserve better than my own clumsy prose; so here is the opening from Paul Griffiths' masterly sleeve note for ECM's recording of Stille Lieder:
We may feel we have always known these songs, and in a sense we have. The first hearing will not seem the first, though we will remember it for that slow shock of familiarity, how it awakens memories - those we knew we had, and those we did not. This is part of these songs' silence, that they make no noise of intrusion.
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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Classical music is not dead - it is suburbanized


My recent post speculating on links between the Rite of Spring and Sufism quoted Turkish pianist Süher Pekinel on Stravinsky's "global understanding". One of classical music's most enduring works may or may not have its roots in Turkish-Islamic trance rituals, but it is incontestable that classical music has a long history of embracing Eastern traditions. This stretches from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, through Rimsky-Korsakov's homage to Arabia Scheherazade and Mahler's setting of ancient Chinese poems in Das Lied von der Erde, to Britten's Curlew River based on a Japanese Noh play. But while classical music has a long history of fraternizing with the East, it also has a long history of moulding those influences so they, to quote Jordi Savall, "fit into the mental schemes of Western audiences".

In the past this remoulding to Western tastes was a form of cultural imperialism, but today it has become just another part of the biggest single threat to classical music - suburbanization. Much, in fact too much, attention has been focussed on the dumbing down of classical music. But celebrity culture, Broadway musicals at the Proms, Classic FM, the cartoon classics of Sinfini Music, and vacuous BBC Radio 3 presenters are more than dumbing down. They are all strands of the remorseless suburbanization that is turning an art form into an entertainment as safe as a suburban shopping malls and as fashionable as caffé mocha. And don't let's kid ourselves it is just a few radio stations and websites that are guilty: suburbanization has infected the repertoire of leading orchestras and the commissioning budgets of most arts organizations, not to mention the writings of cultural commentators. And the ultimate irony is that the big new ideas to save classical music being peddled by so-called industry experts are no more than suburbanization by another name.

As the 1913 premiere of the Rite of Spring showed, surprise and confusion are the lifeblood of classical music, and suburbanization is draining that lifeblood away. The path that started this post led from Stravinsky's native Russia through Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and on to India and the Himalayas. A noteworthy example of anti-suburbanization is the recent CD Kurdistan from the newly formed Nishtiman ensemble - seen above - which brings Kurdish musicians from Turkey, Iraq and Iran together with a French percussionist and double bass player - video sample here. This may not be classical music within the generally accepted and meaningless definition; but it is art music - a genre that suburbanized classical has turned its back on. Nishtiman's music could not be further from a Western shopping mall or caffé mocha ; but it does look forward, as their percussionist and artistic director Hussein Zahawy explains:
We are of a generation very open to the West and also other Eastern cultures. Thanks to CDs and then the internet we are musicians without borders
Nishtiman's music without borders has its roots in Shamanism and Sufism, but it is also music of the 21st century. Art music is a knowledge tradition and the 9th century Persian Sufi scholar Sahl al-Tustari affirmed that "the aim of knowledge is to make you surprised and confused". When were you last surprised and confused by suburbanized classical music?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred influenced this post, but no review samples were used in it. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Does the Rite of Spring have its roots in Sufism?


That painting on the cover of Harry Oldmeadow's Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions is by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Russian aristocrat, Theosophist, and artist Roerich is well-known as the designer of the controversial 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but his wider role in the gestation of the Rite is less clear. In his monumental life of Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh describes how "early collaborators like Benois and Roerich found to their surprise that their part in the creative process had been conveniently forgotten or trivialized" in the composer's self-serving Chroniques de ma vie. While elsewhere pianist Süher Pekinel tells how "before beginning to compose Le Sacre du Printemps, Stravinsky was apparently interested in the rituals of pagan tribes and contacted Roerich to ask for detailed information about them".

Süher Pekinel, who was born in Istanbul, recorded the four hand reduction of the Rite with her twin sister Güher for Deutsche Grammophon in 1980. In a well-researched and credible article titled 'Thoughts on Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring' Süher Pekinel suggests that the cultural influences on the Rite stretch far beyond its sub-title of ""Pictures of pagan Russia in two parts". Pekinel suggests that Stravinsky's music is influenced by Central Asian Shamanism, elements of which are found not only in Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism - traditions which Roerich was immersed in - but also in the Sufism of her native Turkey. To illustrate this Pekinel has posted an excerpt from her recording on YouTube to illustrate how the trance inducing time signature changes in the Rite mirror those found in the sema (worship ceremonies) of the Cerrahîlik Sufi brotherhood.

Such speculation needs to be treated with caution. Nicholas Roerich did not visit Asia until 1925, and prior to his involvement with the Rite of Spring had not travelled outside Russia. But his wife Helena Ivanovna (1879-1955), who he married in 1901, nurtured his interest in esoteric traditions. Helena Roerich was not only well versed in comparative religion, but she was also a very talented pianist who planned to study at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, only to be blocked by her family who feared she would be subverted by revolutionary student politics. In fairness Süher Pekinel shows caution in advancing her fascinating hypothesis, and she avoids sensationalism by ending with the following admirable sentiment:

All these strikingly common features show me clearly how much music fulfils a function of acting as a deep mirror uniting different cultures. I hope music lovers who read my foregoing comments and analysis would listen to the work from a brand new perspective closer to what I believe to be Stravinsky's global understanding.
That reflection on uniting different cultures takes this overgrown path into even more contentious areas. Nicholas Roerich's extensive travels in India and the Himalayas led him to support the controversial theories of Nicolas Notovitch (1858-?). Russian traveller and journalist Notovitch claimed to have visited the Hemis Buddhist monastery in Ladakh on the borders of India and Tibet in the 1880s. Notovitch reported that at the monastery a the chief lhama translated the Life of Issa, an ancient document written in Pali that fills in the twelve year gap (from ages 18 to 30) in the story of Jesus in the New Testament. Isa is the name given to Jesus in the Qur'an and in Sanskrit īśa means 'the Lord', and Notovitch reported that the Life of Issa tells how Jesus aged 13 travelled with a caravan of merchants to India where he received training in Eastern spiritual traditions.

Not surprisingly Notovitch's account of the lost years of Jesus caused great controversy. Subsequent research highlighted significant inconsistencies in Notovitch's account of uncovering the Life of Issa and his claims are now generally discredited, although the objectivity of his detractors among Christian scholars is also open to question. However, despite widespread ridicule the Life of Issa it does have its supporters. In 1925 Nicholas Roerich visited the monastery at Hemis and in his travel diaries he echoes the legend that Issa had travelled and studied in the region. Roerich's diaries were published as a widely acclaimed book titled Altai-Himalaya, and this mirrors Süher Pekinel's article which cites how the Altaic shamanistic tribes performed their own rite of spring for the Celestial God. More recently the 2007 film Jesus in India renewed the Notovitch controversy. Jesus in India, which has been aired on the Sundance Channel, has received acclaim as well as criticism, and in an in interview its director said this:

Our journey to India, following the trail of those who saw and translated the manuscript several times, gives a very convincing case that the manuscript [of Life of Issa] does exist, and that it dovetails neatly with a long list of other kinds of evidence that put Jesus in India during that period of his life. If true, that journey of Jesus to the East was conveniently omitted from the New Testament.
Does Stravinsky's Rite of Spring have its roots in Turkish-Islamic Sufism? Did Jesus receive teachings in India and the Himalayas? Probably the best answer to those questions is found in this quote from Nicholas Roerich's Altai-Himalaya: "In every spark of folklore there is a drop of the great truth adorned and distorted.

* A number of sources were used for this post. I would particularly like to credit Ladakh: Land of Magical Monasteries published by Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi. In a few months, insha'Allah, I will be travelling to that land of monasteries where the manuscript of the Life of Issa may, or may not, exist, and, coincidentally, I will be staying at Thiksy near Hemis monastery.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Independent record label 1 - Corporate record label 0


It is unfortunate that in early music authenticity has led to sterility rather than creativity, and it is doubly unfortunate that this stylistic sterility has spread beyond early music to the mainstream repertoire. Just as the world and the music of audiences are never one and the same, so the stylistic world of the musician should never be one and the same. Evidence of the power of stylistic diversity is provided by viola da gamba virtuosos Fahmi Alqhai. Born in Seville in 1976 with a Syrian father and Palestinian mother, Fahmi Alqhai spent his first 11 years in Syria before studying in Europe with teachers including Paolo Pandolfo. He has gone on to play with leading ensembles including Jordi Savall's Hesperion XXI while also performing flamenco and jazz. In between all that, and presumably in deference to the vagaries of the classical music industry, the young violist also qualified as a Bachelor of Dentistry at the University of Seville.

Fahmi Alqhai's mission, as expressed in the notes for his latest album A Piacere, is to rescue the viola da gamba from "long and dismal obscurity" and to embrace "repertoires beyond time and space with neither artistic not technical restraints". A piacere is a marking denoting freedom of expression, and the new album introduces jazz influenced stylistic freedom to early music with the assistance of notable musical mavericks including regular Jordi Savall sideman and percussionist extraordinaire Pedro Estevan - audio samples here. Thankfully A Piacere is serious classical music with a hint of jazz, rather than the more familiar and less pleasing cross-over formula of serious jazz with a hint of classical. A Piacere replaces the sterility of authenticity with the virility of diversity, and the same admirably nuanced formula is found in Fahmi Alqhai's earlier album Rediscovering Spain made with his Accademia del Piacere ensemble.

Last year Universal Music ceo Max Hole told classical music that it must "ride the wave of change or die". So, speaking of rediscovering Spain, it is ironic that in the same month that independent label Glossa launches A Piacere, the lead release of Universal Music's flagship Deutsche Grammophon label is an album of celebrity guitarist Miloš Karadaglić performing Rodrigo warhorses. But to prove Universal Music is fearlessly riding the wave of change, Miloš Karadaglić adds an admittedly exquisite Takemitsu transcription of Lennon & McCartney’s Michelle. In the DG puff Miloš Karadaglić describes how the Concierto de Aranjuez paints "the landscape of nature, happiness and love". But it is not widely known that the concerto was written in Paris in the spring of 1939 when Europe was hurtling towards the abyss, and Rodrigo was happy to fraternise with both the Nazi and Franco regimes despite having a Jewish wife. The overlooked political background to the Concierto de Aranjuez is explained in Sketches of Spain.



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Friday, February 14, 2014

Topical thoughts on listening to Britten's Noye's Fludde


The Golden Vanity ends with the ensemble singing 'I'm sinking in the Lowland Sea!', a description that today applies to parts of south-west England. Britten was, of course, influenced by Eastern cultures and that coupling of The Golden Vanity with Noye's Fludde - which sets The Chester Miracle Play - takes us on an overgrown path to the mysticism of author and traveller Paul Brunton (1898-1981). Brunton was one of the first to introduce the Eastern esoteric practices of yoga and meditation to the West, while his exposition of mentalism anticipated recent developments in quantum entanglement by half a century; yet, despite this, he is a forgotten figure. While listening to the Golden Vanity and Noye's Fludde this morning as yet another positively Biblical downpour battered at the windows, I was reminded of these wise words written by Paul Brunton in 1937:
We humans have become so self-important and do self-conceited in our own eyes that it does not occur to us that the Great Mother who bears us so patiently upon her earthy breast, feeds us with such abundant variety of foodstuffs, and takes us back again when we are sufficiently tired, has a purpose of her own which she wishes to achieve in us if we will but let her. We have set up our own schemes and projects, we have decided what we want to get from life, and we are thinking striving, struggling and even agonizing in our efforts to obtain the satisfaction of our desires. If, however, we devoted a quarter of our time to ceasing from self-efforts and quietly letting Nature's mind permeate our own, we might make a wise revision of things wanted, yet at the same time secure Nature's co-operation in obtaining them.
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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Listener is performer and performer is listener


That photo of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, which was taken on a tour of Japan in 1981, tells a different story to my 2008 post No flowers please for Herbert von Karjan. With the current fixation on attracting new audiences it is puzzling that the relationship between artist and audience is paid so little attention. In 1964 Benjamin Britten wrote about the "'holy triangle of composer, performer, listener", while nonlocality, which was anticipated by Einstein, formulated in Bell's Theorem, and confirmed by the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiment, tells us that artist and audience are interdependent because the observer affects the observed. This interdependence was expressed very succinctly by the great Sufi master Rumi in these words: "The listener is the performer, and the performer is the listener". Yet the cult of celebrity and modern large concert halls have increased the distance between the listener and the performer, even though new audiences want their classical music up close and personal.

When I was at the BBC in the 1970s I worked on the World Service Russian network and remember sitting in a studio in Bush House in the middle of the night during a broadcast wondering whether anyone was actually listening. These days I sit at my computer in rural Norfolk writing On An Overgrown Path and still wonder if anyone is actually listening. It is one of the paradoxes of the virtual world that despite my blog's traffic logs showing cumulative page views well into seven figures, the number of readers I have met face to face is still in single figures. Every communicator needs an audience, so, at the risk of being accused of self-aggrandisement, I am linking to two recent confirmations that not only does On An Overgown Path have an audience, but people are actually listening to what I am saying. One example comes, quite appropriately in view of the current state of classical music, from the UK's busiest comedy discussion forum; the other comes from David Derrick's The Toynbee convector, a long-running blog which reminds us that distance can bring wisdom to a subject such as classical music. Follow the links here and here.

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Chocolate is the root of all evil

Chocolate comes, chocolate goes, chocolate disappears. And that's natural. When you understand this, your relationship with chocolate can change. When you DEEPLY understand this, you will truly have no fear of anything at all.
That allegory by Lama Yeshe conveys the essence of Buddhism, but it also contains another important teaching. Classical music is riddled with silly conventions. Less damaging conventions include composer anniversaries, binary mindsets, concert etiquette, proscenium arches, embedded journalists and classical charts. Among the more damaging conventions are celebrity, industry experts, discrimination, ambition and greed. But, just like chocolate, these damaging conventions come and go and finally disappear. And that's natural. When classical music understands this, its relationship with audiences - new and old - can change. When classical music DEEPLY understands this it will truly have no fear of anything at all.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Are virtual concert halls the future of classical music?


While researching my recent piece on Human League co-founder and surround sound proponent Martyn Ware I noticed a list of his top ten albums for headphone listening on the Bowers & Wilkins website. There are only two classical albums in the list, and neither Leonard Bernstein's Romantic Favourites For Strings nor Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi strike me as being notably headphone-friendly. In a recent Facebook post Ilan Volkov enthused about a rare performance of Éliane Radigue's Tibetan Book of the Dead inspired electronic masterpiece Trilogie de la Mort at Le Cube in Paris. This performance prompted Ilan to describe it as an "amazing work, so inspiring and moving" and my personal best classical albums for headphone listening* would definitely include Éliane Radigue's own truly mind-blowing studio recording of Trilogie de la Mort; this is released on the Experimental Intermedia label and was featured here in a 2010 post. The unique and immersive binaural sound of headphones was explored in a more recent post sparked by Neu Records surround recording of Ramon Humet's Niwa. The header photo was taken at one of Neu Record's experimental surround sound sessions and their CD of Ramon Humet's music played by the London Sinfonietta directed by Nicholas Collon is another recommendation for headphone listening.

Ilan Volkov's advocacy of Éliane Radigue's music started this path, and, coincidentally, his recording of Jonathan Harvey's Speakings with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is one of the best classical album for headphone listening. Speakings, which is scored for large orchestra and electronics, uses pre-recorded spoken sequences that are digitally modified and syncronised with the orchestral sound in real time and broadcast around the auditorium through an eight channel surround sound system. The photo below shows the venerable Usher Hall in Ediburgh transformed into a virtual concert hall complete with IRCAM created software for a performance of Speakings. On the CD, which was engineered by the BBC in Glasgow City Halls and released on the French Aeon label, Jonathan Harvey controls the spatial element, and listening to it on headphones produces a frisson that is absent with speakers.

Back in 2006 I described how Loft Recordings, a small independent American record label, had used the then state-of-the-art digital technology to successfully create a virtual acoustic. Since that post was written there have been dramatic advances in computer technology, and the lifestyles, sensory hierarchies and expectations of audiences have changed dramatically. New audiences now want their classical music up front and personal, which means my post about how digital technology can build a virtual concert hall is a lot more relevant today than it was eight years ago. This path leads far beyond the best albums for headphone listening to the very future of classical music, because Jonathan Harvey's Speakings is - to use a much abused term - a seminal work in contemporary music which replaces the legacy constraints of brick and mortar concert halls with the infinite opportunities offered by new technology. In his 2010 radio interview with me Jonathan argued that classical music should drop its silly conventions, and auditioning Speakings on headphones shows that the orthodoxy of classical music being irrevocably wedded to a proscenium arch presentation is no more than one of those silly conventions.



* My headphone listening is via a ThorensTD125/SME record deck or Arcam CD37 player into an Arcam Alpha10 integrated amplifier and Sennheiser HD 580 studio-quality headphones. For mobile listening an iPOd Nano and Sennheiser PX 200 foldable headphones are used, and my new 64-bit Dell PC has a 5.1 soundcard installed.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

BBC Radio 3 - lies, damned lies, and statistics

'But while programmes and presenters change, listeners remain' - BBC Radio 3 controller Roger Wright writing in Telegraph Feb 6 2014

'In the last quarter of 2013 BBC Radio 3's total listener hours plunged year-on-year by 16.4%, driven by a decrease both in number of listeners - down 3.3% - and average hours per listener which were down an astonishing 13.9%'. - analysis of RAJAR independent audience data published on Feb 6 2014
My header photo was taken at the Scopitone Digital Arts Festival in Nantes, France and first appeared in How John Cage was totally wired. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Rameau takes a trip with Scott Ross


That photo shows the charismatic Scott Ross taking a trip across the rooftop of Chateau Assass in Languedoc where he recorded Jean-Philippe Rameau's complete harpsichord music in 1975. Last week I expressed one wish for this year's Rameau anniversary: that Warner Classics reissues Scott Ross' masterly interpretation of Rameau using with the original dress convention defying artwork. Now Warner has contacted me with the excellent news that the complete 1975 recordings are being reissued this autumn. They were non-committal about the artwork, but it will be good to have Scott Ross' Rameau in new CD transfers to treasure alongside his monumental Scarlatti set, irrespective of the picture on the packaging.

It is fashionable in some culturally commentated quarters to deride Warner Classic's due to its ownership by Ukrainian-born American Leonard Blavatnik. This ownership by Blavatnik's private conglomerate Access Industries is no more and no less contentious than the ownership of the much larger Universal Music (Deutsche Grammophon, Decca etc) by public conglomerate and no stranger to scandal Vivendi. But there are two significant differences between Warner and Universal. One is that Warner does not have the commissioning power of a clandestinely owned "independent" website to tilt the playing field in their favour. The other is that Warner is showing a real commitment to classical music which is evidenced by the quality of documentation and excellent sounding transfers in their first reissues from the recently acquired EMI catalogue; this commitment to the past as well as to the future is a refreshing contrast to Universal Music's risible attempts to reinvent classical music as a sub-genre of pop. Ownership of priceless intellectual property by any profit hungry conglomerate is a serious cause for concern; but when there is good news let's shout it from the rooftops.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Header photo comes via an excellent article (in French) about Scott Ross at Chateau Assass from Télérama Fr. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, February 07, 2014

Classical music takes the shape of the container that holds it

Sounds fly around the listener and are able, he says, to awaken dormant primal impulses. "Ancestrally, we had to be engaged with the sound world in a much more spatial way for survival, from birds sweeping down behind you to the weather approaching from a distance. If you take a high-timbre piece of sound and move it over the listener's head from behind, it gives them a frisson, like some vestigial flight-or-fight response thing."
In a recent post about making classical music more engaging for new audiences I pointed out that "the spatial opportunities offered by new audio technologies remains neglected". The quote above, which confirms the power of the spatial, comes from a Guardian article about Martyn Ware's pioneering surround sound projects. Ware is best known as a founder member of The Human League, but is also a leading exponent of immersive sound projects including a short-lived surround sound auditorium in Sheffield. More recently he has collaborated with high-end speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins - whose speakers, incidentally, are used by both Jordi Savall and On An Overgrown Path - in projects which included a surround sound work celebrating the 2012 London Olympics built around Eric Whitacre's virtual choir composition Water Night.

Growing resistance to the dumbing down of classical music is a double-edged sword. It is quite right that there is resistance to turning art into tacky entertainment; but it is quite wrong that this resistance is also blocking more evolutionary change. Jack Maguire has written that "One of the most vital aspects of Zen is its ability to take the shape of the container that holds it". In the same way, one of the most vital and most overlooked aspects of classical music is its ability to take the shape of the container that holds it, whether that container is an acoustically impeccable concert hall or an iPod.

Depending on your point of view, classical music has benefitted from or survived a Death in Venice, a wrap-around Rite, cycling in the Malvern Hills, intimate relations with a prurient novel and the close encounter with Mickey Mouse seen above. Right from its 1940 release Fantasia, which was recorded in nine channel surround 'Fantasound', brought classical music to new audiences. Over the years innovative surround sound projects have been featured On An Overgrown Path; one of the first was a 2005 post about Janet Cardiff's frisson inducing Forty Part Motet. But in the past I have been guilty when confronted with Martyn Ware's style of immersive ambience, of rolling my eyes and stuffing a 1970s EMI Kingsway Hall stereo recording of Vaughan Williams into the CD player. Which I now realise is very short-sighted: because too much effort is being directed towards making the container fit the shape of the music, rather than vice versa. Whether we like it or not, technology, sensory hierarchies and lifestyles are changing. If we really want classical music to survive and widen its audience we need to wake up to its ability to take the shape of new containers.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

My world and my music are never one and the same


Independent radio audience (RAJAR) data released this morning underlines the disastrous situation at BBC Radio 3. In the last quarter of 2013 the classical station's total listener hours plunged year-on-year by 16.4%, driven by a decrease both in number of listeners - down 3.3% - and average hours per listener which were down an astonishing 13.9%. It has to be said quite bluntly that there is no evidence at all that the continuing poor performance of BBC Radio 3 is due to anything other than the BBC's signature brand of mismanagement. While Radio 3 slips into the doldrums, radio in general is in rude health, with today's official BBC press release headlined 'RAJAR Q4 2013: more people than ever listening to radio after record-breaking quarter'. During the quarter BBC Radio 4 - a comparable station to Radio 3 - attracted a record audience; while Classic FM - which BBC Radio 3 has tried so desperately to ape - increased its audience by more than 250,000. Separate data shows that classical music, whether live or broadcast, is far from dead; with the Association of British Orchestras reporting a longer term increase in concert audiences of 16%.

BBC Radio 3's scheduling during the last quarter of 2013 revolved around rebroadcasting the Bareboim Ring. This Ring cycle had much merit as part of a summer Proms season celebrating the Wagner bi-centenary; but spreading a repeat across the Christmas holiday period coupled with a 'Hollywood rhapsody Prom' typifies the lazy and unimaginative programming that has become the hallmark of the station. Audiences want to be surprised, inspired and informed, but under network controller Roger Wright Radio 3 has become an unsurprising, uninspiring and dumbed-down wilderness. And if you think that is harsh just look at those audience figures again.

I am one of the many who has deserted BBC Radio 3 in recent years, and when listening on CD recently to Dieter Schnebel's ecumenical, ecstatic and extraordinary Missa - the Kyrie is based on a groaning sound and the score contains a noise layer in addition to vocal and instrumental parts - I was reminded of these thoughts from Alberto Manguel's book A Reader on Reading:

'What we believe a book to be reshapes itself with every reading. Over the years my experiences, my tastes, my prejudices have changed: as the days go by, my memory keeps re-shelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library; my words and my world - except for a few constant landmarks - are never one and the same' -
Dieter Schnebel's ragged edge of modernism happened to suit the moment, but my world and my music - except for a few landmarks - are never one and the same; so tonight it may well be Haydn, or even Titi Robin, that I listen to. Just as music audiences are composed of thousands of random individuals rather than homogeneous groups of the 'old' and 'young', so the same audiences are composed of thousands of individuals whose experiences, tastes, prejudices and music are in constant flux. Which means fluxless music programming - 24/7 Wagner, Britten and Verdi last year, 24/7 Richard Strauss this year, all underpinned by a basso profundo of Mahler and Shostakovich and other 'safe' composers - is as nonsensical as targeting a mythical homogeneous, new audience. The tastes of audiences are never one and the same, and new distribution platforms such as Spotify recognise this. BBC Radio 3's biggest threat is not Classic FM; it is the new distribution platforms that recognise the reality of classical music and allow listeners to constantly reshape their listening. Composer anniversaries and all they bring are just one strain of a particularly virulent lazy programming virus that has infected BBC Radio 3 in particular and classical music in general. What we need on the airwaves and in the concert hall is less predictability and more serendipity.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Gustavo Dudamel to perform at Sochi Winter Olympics


That headline is, of course, fiction, and can you imagine the outcry if it was true? But the facts are equally alarming: Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra - classical music's social conscience - appeared on January 27th as part of the 2014 Abu Dhabi Festival in the United Arab Emirates, a region with a human rights record that makes contemporary Russia look like a liberal paradise. Article 80 of the Abu Dhabi Penal Code designates sodomy as punishable with imprisonment of up to 14 years, and in 2005 UAE justice minister Mohammed bin Nukhaira Al Dhahiri reportedly stated “There will be no room for homosexual and queer acts in the UAE... our society does not accept queer behaviour, either in word or in action”.

The United States is this year’s “country of honor” at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Festival and joining Gustavo Dudamel in the United Arab Emirates's capital this year are Renée Fleming and the Dresden Philharmonic, Miloš KaradaglićVladimir Ashkenazy with Gautier Capuçon and the European Union Youth Orchestra, and the American Ballet Theatre. After their recent Abu Dhabi concert Dudamel and El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu endorsed the regime by accepting a special Abu Dhabi Festival Award from the UAE’s minister of culture. The reason why classical music is happy to protest about gay persecution in Russia but is equally happy to turn a blind eye to the inhuman policies of the United Arab Emirates is quite simple. Russia is not a major market for touring orchestras, but Abu Dhabi is. As somebody once said, I have my principles, but I am prepared to change them when it comes to money.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Rameau minus one elitist convention


Fellow blogger Jessica Duchen offers admirable advocacy of the Rameau anniversary. However my antipathy towards composer anniversaries means I have little enthusiasm for the 250th anniversary of Rameau's death, despite a profound admiration for his music. But, in view of the general acceptance that formal dress is one of classical music's elitist conventions, I do have one wish for the Rameau anniversary: that Warner reissues Scott Ross' masterly 1975 recording of the complete harpsichord music using the original artwork seen above.

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Sunday, February 02, 2014

Let's refresh jaded ears with Classic Amnesia


Widespread interest in Forgotify - a service that streams never-played Spotify tracks - is a wakeup call for classical music. So I'm proposing a crowd-funded streaming service called Classic Amnesia. Just as Spotify is an accurate barometer of popular music fashions, so the Proms are an accurate barometer of classical fashions. Classic Amnesia would interrogate the BBC Proms database and only play music by composers who have had less than five performances in the history of the venerable concert series. As an example Franz Berwald, a composer whose neglected symphonies memorably bridge the classical/romantic divide, would be on the Classic Amnesia playlist. Berwald has received just one Prom performance compared with 273 of Shostakovich's music. I make no claims that Berwald's music is the equal of Shostakovich's. But is Shostakovich really 273 times better than Berwald? Or is this obsession with a few composers just dumbing down by another name? Other composers in rotation on Classic Amnesia would include the recently featured Alan Hovhaness (one Proms performance), Lou Harrison (2) and Georg Christoph Wagenseil (0). Also worth investigating is a partnership with a leading orchestra for a Classic Amnesia festival; this would be a concert series which abandons Mahler, Shostakovich, Britten and Richard Strauss for discoveries from the station's playlist. Silly idea? Perhaps, but no more silly than some of classical music's other ideas for refreshing jaded ears.

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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Be before all else a breathing animal

'Be before all else a breathing animal', Franz Brugen used to say in his provocative way in the masterclasses he gave in the late 1970s, which I was lucky enough to take part in. This programme is therefore an investigation of the original power of music generated by the 'primal breath', which can lead to trance, to meditation, or to jubilation; and since this is, above all, a very personal album, based on my need to breathe, on the universal quest for the moment, and on a highly emotional relationship to the pieces that make it up, I have gathered round me a group of instrumentalists who are my closest friends and partners.
That is virtuoso flautist Pierre Hamon in the photo above, and the quote comes from his notes for the 2009 album Hypnos. This refreshingly counterituitive mix of the early and contemporary on the indie Zig-Zag Territoires label is slipping into the penumbra of 21st century forbidden music, so hurry.

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