Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Expect nothing


A tweet by a music industry journalist prompted by yesterday's post advises me to "get a life". The ubiquitous social media epithet of 'get a life' is the polar opposite of the Zen teaching of 'expect nothing'. In preparation for a journey to the Dalai Lama's Kalachakra empowerment in Ladakh, India I have been living with Eliane Radique's Jetsun Mila, which is a homage to the Tibetan yogi, poet and saint Milarepa. My reference to Peter Matthiessen in yesterday's post was lost in obfuscation. So, to make amends, I offer another quote from The Snow Leopard. In it Peter Matthiessen is referring to the Tibetan Buddhist mantra Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ. But it also applies to Eliane Radique's Jetsun Mila, which can be sampled here:
The deep resonant Om is all sound and silence throughout time, the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being; when intoned with the prescribed vibrations, it invokes the All that is otherwise inexpressible.
Header photo, which like the Sakari Oramo image is not photoshopped, comes via Kalachakra 2014 - Ladakh Facebook page. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Our top classical musicians must learn to say no


Blame for the relentless suburbanization of classical music is invariably laid at the door of radio stations, record companies and the media. But some of the blame must be taken by the musicians themselves. In his classic The Snow Leopard Peter Matthiessen, who died earlier this month, wrote of the "debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies". It is this retreat from wonder that is leaching the lifeblood out of classical music, and it is happening with the tacit approval of people who should know better. Now let's get one thing straight. I am a fan of Sakari Oramo and I applaud his programming William Alwyn's First Symphony at this year's Proms - the first Alwyn symphony for thirty-two years. But the performance on August 13 will have to be very good to make up for the loss of credibility the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new chief conductor has suffered in my eyes from the Proms publicity shot above. This widely circulated photo* is not so much a retreat from wonder on his part as a headlong flight. Our top classical musicians must learn to say no. When approached by the misguided BBC publicists Sakari Oramo should have had the courage to say: "Take your media celebrities elsewhere. I am not in the entertainment business. I am in the wonder business".

* For those readers who, like me, cannot identify the celebrities in the photo, my research uncovers that they are from the left, Janine Jansen, Sakari Oramo, Paloma Faith, Katie Derham and in the background a puppet from the drama War Horse Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, April 28, 2014

New audience for classical music, or for Mahler's music?


My thesis that the premier league composers are not played often enough is supported by the 2014 BBC Proms season. Understandably, if regretably, there is a bias towards Richard Strauss. But, beyond the anniversary effect, there are eight performances of Mahler's music - seven symphonies and a chamber work - and not a single note of Haydn. Moreover, Haydn was also totally absent from the 2013 season, while, by contrast, Mahler's Second Symphony was performed in 2011 and 2013.

It is unfair to blame outgoing Proms director Roger Wright for either the Mahler glut or the Haydn drought, and it is is unlikely the balance will change in the seasons created by his successor. (Incidentally, my money is on Tony "breaking down walls" Hall appointing Classic FM boss Stephen Miron to an expanded arts role in the BBC including Radio 3 and the Proms). But back to feast or famine concert programming; the love affair with big name orchestras is partly to blame - will there ever be a Proms season without the Berlin Philharmonic and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra? As Proms apologist Ivan Hewett explains: "Often the inclusion of this or that concerto or soloist doesn’t have a special significance; it’s all to do with who happens to be on tour, and which piece is in the repertoire of this or that orchestra". Which is perfectly true; but there is a deeper problem which was highlighted by an Overgrown Path reader back in 2011: "One of the issues we face today is the ever-increasing division of classical performances into small, ghetto-like compartments [...] even performances of Mozart, Haydn and even early Beethoven, which used to be a staple of most symphony orchestras' concert seasons, are becoming rarities".

Fortunately Mozart and Beethoven are better represented in the 2014 Proms than Haydn, and the wise Bernard Haitink even prefaces Mahler with Schubert. But this Mahler-centric programming - and it is not just the Proms - raises some important questions.I cut my teeth on Fritz Reiner's Haydn symphonies on LP, and Reiner with his Chicago orchestra could deliver both superlative Haydn and superlative Mahler. The current Mahler glut may well attract a new audience. But how many of them even know that Haydn exists? Do we want a new audience for classical music, or a new audience for Mahler's music? Which, moving away from the specific, raises the question of do the arts need wide or deep audiences?

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

... towards a Pure Land

'All artists try different paths. They constantly change, and they have their 'this' period or their 'that' period. I am not saying the Buddhist 'thing' is my Buddhist period. I think it goes back rather longer than that. I came across Buddhism perhaps after [Rudolf] Steiner, but even before that when I was a student at Cambridge, but I was never really wholeheartedly into it. So I have been Buddhist most of my life. But the Buddhist phase would be quite recent if you look at the titles of my music and the explicit musical themes - maybe ten of fifteen years - and I don't mind being called a Buddhist composer. But like all artists I don't particularly like being called only a Buddhist composer. So, of course, it's a subject I could expound on for a long time, about what being a Buddhist composer is. But that's another story ' ~ Jonathan Harvey speaking in a 2010 radio interview with me*. Jonathan's ... towards a Pure Land for large orchestra evokes the state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping, and, together with Body Mandala and Speakings, comprises his Buddhist themed Glasgow trilogy.
'As someone with Buddhist tendencies, particularly at this stage of my life, I enjoy looking back on my life with the kind of rather objective question: why does one person have predilections this way and another that way? What is the nature of Karma? What is the mental continuum that continues through the process of reincarnation? Is there such as thing as reincarnation? These are questions which fascinate me and I can see, looking back, that I did have certain predilections. Where they came from is what fascinates me. These predilections were towards mysticism and transcendental experience [...] At Cambridge I became very absorbed, quite suddenly, in mystical writing, like that of St John of the Cross. Christian mysticism seemed to lead out of a framework that I knew and understood fairly well into a more general, more heterodox consciousness, which of course had many resonances in oriental religions. Someone said, 'You only have to squeeze St John of the Cross like a sponge and you are left with pure Buddhism'. The experiences were enhanced by visits to monasteries, where I could stay a few days; usually lonely, quiet, peaceful places' ~ Jonathan Harvey speaking to Arnold Whittall in 1999. Photos were taken at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery of the Theravadan Thai Forest Tradition. Another quiet, peaceful place provides the background to my reflections on Jonathan's Buddhist influenced Fourth String Quartet.

* That radio interview with Jonathan Harvey is a priceless document that demands to be transcribed and made available in text form online. Transcribing it is a major task which I need to tackle; perhaps it could be done as a collaborative project with interested readers. Second text is taken from Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whittall. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, April 25, 2014

Music is not a destination but a journey


"I am in many ways surprised and not surprised by what seems to be today your choice of music you cover and likely listen to" writes a longstanding reader. Music exists only in constant flow and flux, which means the music I listen to is also in constant flux. Alan Watts described how conventional music has given us prejudiced ears, so that we treat all sounds that do not follow their rules as insignificant noise. Challenging our prejudiced ears is an essential part of the lost art of listening; because it gives a fresh perspective on the familiar. Yesterday, after listening to unfamiliar Arabic-Turkish court music, I returned with heightened awareness to Bartók's familiar String Quartets - there is a connection - and moved on, with great pleasure, to Elizabeth Maconchy's less familiar Quartets. Jan Willis writes: "Ultimately, what I have come to know is that life - precious life - is not a destination... life is the journey". Today the demand for instant gratification means classical music is viewed as a destination to be reached as quickly as possible. Which is sad: because I now realise that music, like life, is not a destination, but a journey on an overgrown path.

Header photo was taken on my recent journey to Sidi Ifni, Morocco. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Somewhere over the rainbow is Qatar

At the Last Night of the 2013 BBC Proms soprano Joyce DiDonato dedicated Somewhere Over the Rainbow to gay victims worldwide as a protest against Russia's hardline stance towards homosexuals. On Sept 7, 2014 the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra appear at the Proms for the first time. The orchestra was founded in 2007 by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, one of the wives of the ruler of Qatar. As was pointed out here recently , and I quote verbatim from the UK government foreign travel website: "Homosexual behaviour is illegal in Qatar". Why are some gay causes more fashionable than others?

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An absurd complex of inferiority to the symphony orchestra


Much trumpeting from Sony about a Billboard classical chart number one for Iranian composer Hafez Nazeri's Rumi Symphony which "crosses cultural boundaries through a new universal blending of Eastern and Western classical music". That PR speak sets the alarm bells ringing, because as one of the leading exponents of traditional Middle Eastern music, Julien Jaleddin Weiss, explains:
"European stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass) were integrated relatively recently into oriental ensembles, to the point where they have acquired a dominant, indeed overwhelming position. I have always taken care to eliminate them as far as possible, for they were designed to play our polyphonic music. In my view their introduction is tainted with an original sin, namely an absurd complex of inferiority to the symphony orchestra. Not to mention, of course, the total incompatibility of the language of the maqām with the equal temperament of the piano, the guitar, and all Western wind instruments.
More alarm bells are sounded by the Huffington Post headline which tells us that Hafez Nazeri is "fighting for world peace". In his book The Other Islam Stephen Schwarz describes how: " In most English-language editions of [Rumi's] writings, Islam and metaphysics have been extracted like internal organs from his verse and it falls to the idiom of the gift card". In his Rumi Symphony Hafez Nazeri commits the double original sin of reducing both a profound teaching and an incomparable music tradition to no more than the idiom of a musical gift card. Listen here, or, even better, buy one of Julien Weiss and Ensemble Al Kindi's albums.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

You can do better than that


"Do you remember the first time you heard classical music" asks a tweet from the Bienen Music School linked to my recent post about Jan Willis. Some years ago I recounted how my parents took me in the early 1960s to hear Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the young Singaporean maestro Choo Hoey. That was one of my music epiphanies, and another is also worth recounting. Sometime in the late 1950s I borrowed a record by Tommy 'Mister Twist' Steele from a schoolfriend to play on our home radiogram. My mother, who was an accomplished pianist, said just one thing when she heard it: "You can do better than that, Bob". I have always remembered those wise words, and classical music can also learn much from them. If it really wants to build a new audience, classical music should forget all the notably unsuccessful nonsense about reinventing itself as entertainment. Instead concert promoters, record companies, music journalists and radio stations should be proclaiming: "You can do better than that entertainment audiences; join us for the ride and we will show you how". As the BBC moves towards appointing a new Radio 3 controller and Proms director, their management should keep in mind that the outgoing BBC classical music supremo Roger Wright will be remembered for sacrificing art on the altar of entertainment, while one of his predecessors, William Glock, is remembered for reinvigorating classical music by giving audiences "what they will like tomorrow".


Photos were taken a few weeks ago in Sidi Ifni, Morocco. The boarded up Twist Club is a relic of the 1950s when the town was a Spanish military garrison; the footer photo is a detail of the facade of the magnificent art deco cinema also built by the Spanish. Striking images but also a striking teaching: they both show places of entertainment that were abandoned half a century following a cultural shift, but are preserved today as artworks. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, April 21, 2014

"If life were just, I would become a great conductor"

One of my earliest and fondest memories is of standing in the center of our kitchen at about age four, stick baton in hand, "conducting" symphonies by Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov*. My mother had given in to my pleas for the 78 rpm records. She thought the music completely unappealing and constantly yelled at me for turning the volume up, but I loved her without bounds for buying me the ninety-eight cent record.

For days and weeks, I was completely lost in the roaring sonorities of Scheherazade and in the somber strains of the New World Symphony. My head and arms sunk and rose in waves and flurries as the music wholly enveloped me. I thought the New World particularly moving, somehow divinely captivating. Its sound struck a deep, still, soul-place in me, though I did not and could not say why. It was only much later that I learned of Dvořák's interest in black spirituals.

I do not remember when I first heard classical music. Nor do I know how I could have known the names of particular composers. I suspect I first heard the music in movies such as Walt Disney's Fantasia or on television. How I ever claimed to comprehend the intricacies of musical notation and meter I am not sure. Yet I was somehow drawn intensely and irrevocably towards this kind of creativity; and I marveled that in music, as in mathematics, there was a language that was universal. And so, for a time, while my father was toiling away at making steel in the fiery blast furnaces of the Ensley mill, I determined that if life were just, I would become a great conductor.
That is Jan Willis in the photo above, and the extract is from her autobiographical Dreaming Me. She grew up in Docena, Alabama in the 1950s when life was even less just then than it is today. While Jan Willis was discovering classical music, America's leading impresario declared that he didn't believe in male "Negro symphony conductors", yet alone female Negro symphony conductors. Fortunately, classical music's loss was spirituality's gain: after studying with Lama Yeshe - who also influenced Philip Glass - Jan Willis went on to become the first African American scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. In 2000 she was named one of the six spiritual innovators for the new millennium by Time magazine and today is professor of religion and East Asian studies at Wesleyan University.


* While writing this post I was prompted to put a Rimsky symphony on the CD player; David Zinman's account of the Second Symphony Antar with the Rotterdam Philharmonic just happened to be the one I put my hand on. Listening to it again was a salutary reminder of how classical music's big opportunity is neglected music.

No review samples involved; but dependent arising dictated that the very cheap copy of Dreaming Me that I bought online came signed by Jan Willis. 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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

To cat, or not to cat: that is the question


There was an overwhelming response on Facebook to yesterday's feline photo. It was taken at Sidi Ifni in southern Morocco, as are the two photos in this post. Fishing is the main industry of the town, and the daily fish market is home to many contented moggies as Muslims are taught that cats should be cherished and loved. These images are certainly heartwarming, but I am also aware that cats are a very powerful social media clickbait. However there are strong links between cats and art music; this is almost certainly because the condition of synaesthesia - experiencing one sensation (sound) in terms of another (sight) - which is found in many classical musicians, is hardwired into cats. John Tavener was asked by Brian Keeble how he knew if something was going wrong with his music, and could he tell by looking at it whether it was right or wrong. This was the composer's reply:
Yes, I can, and not only by looking at the music. It could be by looking at the cat, which I know is ridiculous, but there is something deeply mysterious about cats. I think they 'know' things that we don't have access to.
Two of John Tavener's pieces for solo piano, In Memory of Two Cats and Mandoodle, are inspired by cats. To cat, or not to cat is the question. To which my answer is that if just one reader of this post discovers these affectionate Tavener miniatures, which are on an excellent Naxos disc played by Ralph van Raat, my use of cats as a benign clickbait is excusable.


Quote is from John Tavener: The Music of Silence edited by Brain Keeble. Any copyrighted materialis included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Zen and the art of walking away

'A cat sits until it is done sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away' - Alan Watts
Photo taken at Sidi Ifni, Morocco; another cat plays a cameo role in On the road with a Sufi saint. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for critical analysis only. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Also sprach Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tuni


Dependent arising means that while travelling I have been spending much time with Egyptian Sufi music, particularly with the CD seen above from the master of the munshidin - sacred song - Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tûni. This disc is living proof of the unfashionable view that music is humanity's most direct expression of its better self, and I recommend that readers intrigued, or indeed puzzled, by my preoccupation with the esoteric tradition of Islam should exit their comfort zones and enter its force field. My heavy rotation of the sultan of munshidin is evidence of how far I have strayed from today's "it's 2014, so it must be Richard Strauss" monoculture. Audience data and social media trends show that many others are being disenfranchised in the same way. Fortunately the quaint notion that classical music is more than entertainment lives on, and this week the Britten Sinfonia present Bach's St John Passion in Cambridge, Amsterdam, London, Saffron Walden (in the beautateous new Saffron Hall) and Norwich. I will be chairing a pre-concert talk with soprano Julia Doyle and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies at the Norwich performance on Easter Sunday. In his essay for the Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tûni CD Alain Weber's tells how in a Sufi ritual, the hadra - the moment of collective spirituality when the participants enter into the presence of the Divine - is "an open creative event where a whole range of emotional behaviour is expressed". Which is also a very good definition of Passion, as in Bach.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Refreshing antidote to clickbait music journalism


Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer appears to have been remaindered as new copies are available from the States on Amazon at very low prices. This definitive study of a grossly underrated composer comes complete with a CD of Harrison's music that is worth the discounted price alone. Running to almost 400 pages with chapter headings inclusing 'Music and the Dance', 'Lou Harrison and East Asian Music', 'Sounding off: Music and Politics', 'Harrison, Homosexuality and the Gay World, and 'Not Just Music: Criticism, Poetry, Art and Typography', Composing a World is a refreshing antidote to today's all-pervasive clickbait music journalism.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

At the shrine of Sidi Ali Ifni


Today I am leaving. I am leaving the Library, my house, my friends, the city where I live. I do not know where I am going. Strangest of all, I am leaving the Library in order to find a book. The only thing I have to guide me is the notebook of the last Librarian. I can scarcely ask him, for he has gone, and his disappearance is precisely what drives me to find out what he found - if indeed there is anything to discover.
This postcard from my travels comes from the south of Morocco. Above is a detail of the shrine of the Sufi marabout Sidi Ali Ifni, in the photo below his shrine is in the foreground with the eponymous town behind it. Sidi Ifni was the Spanish enclave and art deco military garrison of Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña until it was reclaimed and renamed by Morocco in 1969 after a long-running territorial dispute. The quotation comes from Sufi inspired The Book of Strangers by Ian Dallas who became the controversial Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi before writing The New Wagnerian using his Western pen name.


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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Semi-detached suburban Aldeburgh Music


Roger Wright's recently announced move from the BBC to Aldeburgh has been described elsewhere as a "bombshell" and "surprising"; but personally I would describe it as another predictable step in the remorseless suburbanization of classical music. Roger Wright has not left the BBC: he has been moved sideways by the music establishment to a "safe house" at Aldeburgh. As has previously been pointed out here, the chairman of Aldeburgh Music council Simon Robey is also chairman of the Royal Opera House, while Aldeburgh Music president Lord Dennis Stevenson of Coddenham is a director of Glyndebourne productions as well as listing consultancy to Universal Music in his parliamentary declaration of interests. Their colleague Laura Wade-Gery sits on both the Aldeburgh Music council and the Royal Opera House board of trustees, another Aldeburgh Music council member David Robbie is a former non-executive director of the BBC, and the Barbican Arts Centre is run by Roger Wright's predecessor at the BBC Nicholas Kenyon. This nepotistic network spans both creative and commercial interests, and some of the most intense personal pressure I have been subjected to in almost ten years of blogging came when Aldeburgh Music unsuccessfully tried to force me to redact a factually correct and diligently cross-referenced post about funding from a multi-national corporation.

Coverage of Roger Wright's move sideways has been, like most current musical journalism, lamentable. Little attention has been paid to new BBC director general Tony Hall's "vision" statement for the arts which was made the day after the announcement of the departure of his classical music network controller; a statement which, I suspect, was a step too far towards suburbanization for even Roger Wright. Most of the coverage by journalists eager to stay onside with the BBC has positioned Tony Hall as a force for good. Which conveniently overlooks that the newly appointed director general spent 28 years immersed in the bloated culture of the BBC before moving to the Royal Opera House. At Covent Garden one of his achievements was to fill the foyers with masters of the financial universe braying into mobile phones and another was to allow young singers to be sponsored - quite unbelievably - by a tobacco company.

In a sycophantic piece in the Telegraph Radio 3 presenter Ivan Hewett says Roger Wright is "off to run the Aldeburgh Festival". Which is somewhat simplistic: he has been appointed chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, an organisation responsible for activities ranging from education and outreach to residencies, new music commissions, and experimental events such as Faster Than Sound, as well as the Aldeburgh Festival. Aldeburgh defines itself as "a place of energy and inspiration for music and the arts". That energy and inspiration can only come from an animateur who is prepared to cross swords with the establishment, which is not something Aldeburgh Music's chief executive designate is exactly noted for. Seen above is one of the houses that Roger Wright - annual BBC remuneration £227,450 plus generous expenses - may be viewing in anticipation of his move. For readers outside the UK I would explain that "semi-detached" means it is part of a larger establishment, and the sterling 1.5 million price tag - which is typical of suburbanized Aldeburgh - converts to US dollars 2.5 million. Forgive me if I lapse back into silence.

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