Friday, February 27, 2015

If there is a paradise, it is here, it is here

The area of experience that 'mystical' and 'spiritual' refer to is often not empirically verifiable, that is, a camera can't photograph it, a scale can't weigh it, nor can words do much to describe it. It is not physical, emotional or mental, though it may partake of those three areas. Like the depths of our loving, mystical experience can be neither proven, nor denied
That quote comes from Coleman Barks' introduction to his book The Soul of Rumi. I bought my copy last year in the estimable Full Circle Bookstore that is part of Café Turtle in Nizamuddin East Market near the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi. But that header photo was not taken in New Delhi; it was taken in Clare Hall, Cambridge last Saturday during an evening of ragas played by the Cambridge Hindustani Trio. It is self-evident that the Hindustani music of Northern India, of which the mystical raga is the apogee, is rooted in Hinduism. But Hindustani music also contains Muslim influences: the dominant Khyal genre absorbed influences from the Qawwali music of the subcontinent's Sufis, and both the sitar and sarod seen in the photo originate from Muslim Afghanistan. In his celebration of the Sufi saint Rumi, Coleman Barks describes how mystical experiences cannot be captured by a camera or in words. Similarly the experience of hearing and seeing the prodigiously talented young musicians of the Cambridge Hindustani Trio* selflessly serving the spiritual music of India cannot be captured in a photograph or words, or in a stream of binary digits. Western classical music should stop chasing impossible dreams of miracle maestros, new concert halls, and thaumaturgic technologies. As the Persian poem inscribed on the wall of the Red Fort in Delhi tells us in an echo of the Sufi fable The Conference of the Birds: "If there is a paradise, it is here, it is here".

* Members of the Cambridge Hindustani Trio are: Left of photo Avradeep Pal playing sarod - Avradeep began playing the sarod at a very young age. He was trained in the Senia Mihar Gharana (lineage) by the late Pandit Kamal Mallick and Gopi Mohan Basu, and has also received training from Shrimati Amina Perera (daughter of the legendary Ustad Ali Abar Khan), Pandit Kartik Kumar and Pandit Nayan Gosh. Centre of photo Parth Gharfalkar playing tabla: Parth has studied the tabla since the age of six, first with Pandit Pankaj Naik of the Punjab Gharana, then from Pandit Rajkumar Misra of the Jaipur Gharana after Parth moved to London at the age of eight. Right of photo Angelina Morelos playing sitar - Angelina has been playing the sitar for more than fifteen years with her teacher the sitar maestro Pandit Manilal Nag. She is a national scholar and gold medal winner in Indian music. My ticket for their concert was bought at the Clare Hall box office. Photo is by Arijita Pal. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). This post is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

There could be worse ways to start a career


In Amati magazine Jessica Duchen interviews the prodigiously talented young composer and conductor Duncan Ward. In the interview much is made of how Duncan Ward was "appointed as the first conducting scholar of the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchester-Akademie on the recommendation of Sir Simon Rattle", how he is working as assistant to Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, and how the young composer is writing a piece for Rattle and his wife the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená to perform. The interview comprehensively documents Duncan Ward's very impressive career to date but omits one fact: he is managed by Askonas Holt - see above - as are Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic, Magdalena Kožená and others namechecked in the interview. If the buzz that is building around Duncan Ward induces déjà vu, it may well be because another young conductor called Gustavo Dudamel was managed by Askonas Holt early in his career, and received similar coverage, including endorsement from Simon Rattle. As Jessica Duchen says on Facebook, there could be worse ways to start a career. Duncan Ward is clearly a huge talent and is certain to go far. When Sir Simon is appointed music director of the Askonas Holt represented London Symphony Orchestra, I expect to see Duncan Ward guest conducting them in the new London concert hall.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Unsurpassed Haydn


The recent sad death of John McCabe cannot be allowed to pass without a mention of his recording of the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas for Decca in the 1970s. His account has never been surpassed and probably never will be surpassed. If somebody had told me ten years ago that I would now listen to more Haydn than any other composer I would have laughed at them. Which just goes to show that my world and my music are never one and the same.

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

How the long tail is being priced out of the market

Mode Records is a New York label specialising in contemporary music. Their distributor in the UK is Harmonia Mundi, who. like several other distributors, sells direct via Amazon marketplace. When the Mode CD of John Luther Adams' Strange and Sacred Noise reaches Harmonia Mundi in the UK they sell it direct to the public for £16.25 (£14.99 + £1.26 delivery) - see screen grab below - and must be making an acceptable margin in the process. But when the CD makes the short journey to one of Amazon UK's distribution centres, the price increases to £23.18 as in the screen grab above. (Both prices applied on Feb 22, 2015). This represents a 43% (£6.93) price hike by Amazon. This inflated pricing by Amazon is an increasingly common occurrence on long tail titles, and is, presumably, a function of the online retailer's increasingly dominant market position as independent retailers are forced out of business. The large differential between the CD at £23.18 and the MP3 download at £8.99 should also be noted. Yes, this reflects a difference in distribution and stockholding costs. (Although as I write Amazon only holds two copies of Strange and Sacred Noise in stock). But as independent retailers cannot offer the download version, it conveniently hastens the collapse of long tail distribution by independent retailers. Amazon's strategy of using digital content as a route to not only control distribution but also become the owners of intellectual property - more than 500,000 books are available only on the Kindle eBook platform - is a disruptive development that is receiving too little attention. Apple's ambition "to be the music business", which may mean iTunes owning as well as distributing content also has major ramifications for the long tail.

It is unlikely that other UK music writers will be covering Amazon's pricing policies, because don't buy their CDs. But there may be an additional reason: several writers have monetised relationships with Universal Music's Sinfini website, which has now spread its tentacles into Holland and Australia. And Sinfini Music has a monetised relationship with Amazon via a range of Universal Classics compilation albums which are sold as downloads via Amazon, but not released on CD and therefore unavailable to independent retailers. Which should be read in conjunction with the news that Apple is currently looking for a music journalist to manage a team of freelancers writing about iTunes content. The next time someone tells you that classical music's biggest problem is the lack of a designer concert hall in London, please correct them.


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Monday, February 23, 2015

London and Dublin - a tale of two cities


John Luther Adams' Become Ocean receives its European premiere on March 6th. The Pulitzer Prize and Grammy winning work is being performed in Dublin by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jamie Phillips in a programme that includes music by Anna Clyne, Irene Buckley and David Lang. In London on the same night both the the Royal Festival Hall and Barbican are dark. If you want to hear classical music in London around March 6th the two principal venues offer Hobson's choice. Two days before in the Royal Festival Hall, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment offers the distinctly unenlightened programme of Dvorák's New World Symphony and Brahms' Violin Concerto with Iván Fischer and Viktoria Mullova - ironically that header image is being used by the OAE to promote their concert. At the Barbican on the 5th March there is the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme that includes a John Williams movie soundtrack and a second half with a " a unique and dazzling mix of classical, jazz and folk music", while seven days later the LSO and their principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas - his salary as music director of the San Francisco Symphony is $2.41 million - offer a little Colin Matthews and a lot of Gershwin and Shostakovich - the latter the war horse Fifth Symphony.

In Dublin a hungry and visionary conductor and orchestra premieres Become Ocean, which is one of the most important and comprehensible pieces of classical music composed in recent years. In London two quite serviceable but not ideal venues are dark on the same Friday night. Yet the London Symphony Orchestra and the classical music establishment is lobbying to bring to London another highly paid celebrity conductor - Simon Rattle's Berlin salary is conservatively estimated at £750,000 - to play over-exposed music in a new £300 million concert hall. This while funding for grass roots music making is being slashed, and when provision of arts facilities is already heavily skewed towards London and other metropolitan centres.

The role of classical music's power brokers, the management agents, in the lobbying for a new London concert hall should not be overlooked. Simon Rattle's agent is Askonas Holt, who also represent the London Symphony Orchestra and its principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, as an agent's commission is a percentage of their client's earnings, Askonas Holt stands to benefit financially if Rattle is appointed to the LSO and a new hall is built. Incidentally, to keep it in the family, Askonas Holt also represent Mrs Rattle, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená who sung with her husband and the Berlin Philharmonic in their recent performance of Mahler's Second Symphony in London. At the risk of repeating myself, it is also worth pointing out that the other soloist in the Mahler, Kate Royal, is also managed by Askonas Holt, while, yes you guessed it, Askonas Holt represents the Berlin Philharmonic and masterminded their recent London concerts and residency.

Before leaving the subject of a new London concert hall it should be noted that the non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt Michael Cassidy CBE helped prepare the City of London Cultural Strategy 2012-17 in his role as chairman of the board of governors of the Museum of London. Michael Cassidy has been in legal practice for over 40 years, focussing on UK and international investment, mostly for major pension funds. He currently holds the position of chairman of the City of London Property Investment Board, having previously been chairman - policy & resources and chairman planning for the City of London and president of the London Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of the Barbican Centre.

Mr Cassidy is also non-executive director responsible for championing the funded arts programme for Crossrail Ltd, the company that is building an east-west rail link across London. The business interests of Askonas Holt's non-executive chairman extend beyond London, and following Chancellor George Osborne's announcement in the 2014 budget that Ebbsfleet in Kent was to become a new garden city, Michael Cassidy was appointed by the government as chairman designate of the new Ebbsfleet Development Corporation. Outside the UK Mr Cassidy is a non-executive director of the Swiss UBS investment bank; the sponsorship by that bank of the London Symphony Orchestra has featured on An Overgrown Path previously. But I am starting to repeat myself, so let's cut to the chase. In my humble opinion classical music does not need a new concert hall in London. Classical music just needs to wake up to the blindingly obvious.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?


Reader Antoine Leboyer writes to point out that the New York Philharmonic has made its programme archive available online and that the archive shows how past programmes were far more varied than those played today. Here are just some of the composers that Antoine highlights from past concerts by the orchestra: Siniaglia, Busoni, Bosi, Chadwick, Stanford, Loeffler, McDowell, Hadley, Goldmark, Pfitzner, Enesco, Vieuxtemps and Grétry. Antoine also remarks on how Webern's music has virtually disappeared from New York concerts in recent years. One of the many confidence tricks of the digital era is how a long tail of cultural riches was promised, but a short head immaculately coiffed by audience whoring celebrities was actually delivered. I suggest that one of the key search criteria for the New York Philharmonic's new music director should be a passion for giving audiences permission to like unfamiliar music.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Raga versus Mahler is no contest


We are told accessibility is the key to attracting classical music audiences. But is it really? As part of the admirable Ouverture Spirituelle thread within the 2015 Salzburg Summer Festival there is a performance in the Kollegienkirche by Hindustani and Carnartic musicians of ragas to greet the dawn and sunrise. The ragas start at six o'clock in the morning and the concert on July 26th is already sold out. However, tickets for Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler's Ninth Symphony at a more conventional hour, are, as I write, still available. Perhaps the key to attracting audiences is not accessible music but different music.

Photo of tabla player Kuljit Bhamra playing with Britten Sinfonia musicians in 2012 was taken by me in the Country & Eastern emporium in Norwich, read the story here. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Music to listener or listener to music?


My post Beware of creating museums of sound, the latest in a long running thread about shifting sonic expectations, generated one of the largest readerships in the ten year history of On An Overgrown Path. That readership was boosted by exposure on Synthtopia, a Facebook portal devoted to electronic music. However, there and elsewhere a number of readers interpreted the article as a plea for the use of sound shaping to correct the sound of acoustically deficient halls, and there were the usual comments such as Paul Kavicky's "This is the stupidest thing I've read all day". Paul and others missed the point that my post was not about corrective technologies, but about bridging the yawning gap between traditional concert hall sound and the ubiquitous headphone/MP3 sound. Despite the naysayers, there is no need to argue the case for using corrective sound shaping. Because, as Alex Ross pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, corrective sound shaping is a done deal that is in place, working and accepted in traditional venues around the world such as the Konzerthaus in Berlin. The Meyer Sound system described in Alex's article is one accepted sound shaping solution, another is the French 'Carmen' system which was featured here as far back as 2010.

Judging by the reaction to my post a lot of people in classical music remain in denial about sound shaping technologies. But one reader who is definitely not in denial is Ian Sidden, who is a baritone in Theater Dortmund Opera's chorus. In a post on his blog linked to my museums of sound piece Ian recounts how:
I do remember when I was first becoming acquainted with live classical music (as an audience member, since I’ve often participated onstage in some form or another since childhood), and I was deeply surprised by how different my CDs sounded vs. what happened in the concert hall. I love it now, but if the preparation for new classical listeners is recorded music, then those first experiences will be jarring.
It is that jarring discrepancy between concert hall and recorded sound - a discrepancy which has increased since Ian was a classical neophyte - which is so important. Last year I wrote another post which drew mixed reactions, it was about MP3s and other lossy audio files and was titled How classical music was covertly dumbed down. Since I wrote that post a startling illustration of how recorded music is being covertly dumbed down comes from Ryan Maguire, a Ph.D. student in Composition and Computer Technologies at the University of Virginia Center for Computer Music. In a project pointedly titled The Ghost In the MP3, Ryan has extracted the sounds lost to MP3 compression in Suzanne Vega’s song Tom’s Diner, and has made those sounds available as a 'ghost' soundtrack. Listening to that ghost soundtrack is certainly an ear opener, and this is pop music - just think what is lost from a sonically more complex classical recording. The diluting effect of digital compression is receiving much attention, but the conditioning effect resulting from compressed binaural sound becoming the listening norm is still receiving little attention.

Alex Ross' New Yorker article opens in a trendy Californian restaurant, and the Ghost in the MP3 deconstructs Tom's Diner. So, to trigger some reasoned debate, let's construct a foodie analogy. Classical music in a traditional concert hall is like a restaurant serving only tofu salad. That restaurant has three big problems. First the market for tofu salad is shrinking, secondly the restaurant owners have written a very ambitious growth oriented business plan based on moving into the mass market, and thirdly the owners have hired several highly-paid celebrity chefs. The health benefits of tofu salad are a no brainer; but the reason why the market is shrinking is that diners increasingly prefer hamburgers - aka headphone/MP3 sound. So what should the restaurant owners do? Should they keep serving tofu salad and nothing else in the hope that diners will see the error of their ways? Which is what classical music is currently doing. Or should the restaurant pursue alternative strategies instead of simply sitting, waiting and hoping that the market will change? Taking tofu salads off the menu and replacing them with hamburgers is not an atractive option as it means losing the existing customers. Offering a choice of tofu and hamburger menus on different days is another option that would attract new custom, while putting tofu hamburgers on the everyday menu is another possibility. Which solution, if any, will work is unclear, and the only way to find out is to experiment.

Sound shaping technologies mean that a concert hall with a traditional circa 1.8 second resonance can now also experiment with frequency shaped 'up close and personal' surround sound - which means that tofu salad, hamburgers and tofu hamburgers are available on demand to meet the needs of different audiences. Those in denial about digital solutions should also take on board the possibility that the non-digital solution of smaller halls with more engaging acoustics may be the answer. The fashion is for large concert halls created by designer architects to accommodate the large audiences demanded by classical music's profligate financial model, and by the large orchestras demanded by the current fixation with overblown late-Romantic symphonies. Smaller and more intimate halls - tofu hamburgers? - may be the way forward. Don't forget that Snape Maltings, which is acclaimed as one of the best concert halls in the world, seats only 800 compared with the acoustically-challenged Royal Festival Hall's capacity of 2900. One of the complex factors that makes the Snape sound so winning is the hall's apparent 'loudness'. Smaller venues would bring the dual benefit of bringing a more involving sound and, due to the reduced audience capacity constraining revenue generation, bringing celebrity musicians back into the real world.

As someone who believes in Nadha Brahma - sound is god - it pains me to say so, but, whether we like it or not, headphone/MP3 sound has become the mass market reference. In an ideal world we would take the listener to the music in a traditional concert hall acoustic, and not the music to the listener using intermediary technologies. But the important and overlooked point is that there is actually no such thing as listener to the music. Because in a traditional concert hall the music is taken to the listener using a set of acoustic conventions determined more than a century ago, just as recorded music is taken to another audience via MP3 files and headphones using a new set of conventions. Bridging the gap between those two conventions could be the way to solve classical music's new/young audience problem, and accepting that the gap actually exists is the first step towards arriving at a solution. Now excuse me while I finish my tofu salad.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

One small step for quality sound


On An Overgrown Path was the only independent media source that picked up on the BBC axing their SHOUTcast Radio 3 HD sound stream. Many other individuals expressed concerns on the BBC internet blog and elsewhere, and within the last few hours has come the good news that the BBC have reversed its decision and the SHOUTcast stream has been reinstated. Here is the key section from the BBC statement:
Over the past week or so there has been a lot of feedback and comment over changes to the BBC's internet radio streams. We do need to modernise our infrastructure and we have chosen HTTP chunked delivery formats so that we can continue to innovate and provide new features for our users that the older formats do not support. It is clear from your feedback that our fallback choice for SHOUTcast has fallen short in a number of areas. We genuinely do want to make our streams available to as many people as possible within the budget allowed. We have been working over the past week on some of the technical solutions required to improve the situation and I am happy to say that we have now re-enabled Radio 3 HD Sound on SHOUTcast.
If I was Norman Lebrecht I would claim credit for reversing the BBC's decision. But I am not, so I won't. Credit goes to the Friends of Radio 3, and, particularly, to the huge number of people who care about sound quality and said so on the various technical forums. Back in 2008 I asked does the sound matter anymore? What has happened today at the BBC proves it does.

Yes, that's my Thorens TD125/SME Series III in the photo. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Classical music is being promoted to death


Reactions to last week's visit by the Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic roadshow to London were polarised between the effusive and the vitriolic. So I am providing a few thoughts of my own which, I hope, gravitate more towards the middle way. I had some peripheral involvement with Simon Rattle early in his career during my EMI days. One memory is his Royal Festival Hall performance of Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony. I had arranged for a consumer electronics company to sponsor the recording of the symphony by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon; that is the original 1980 LP release above. The sponsor's sales director, who was not a great classical music fan, attended the RFH concert and I took him backstage afterwards to meet the conductor. Rather lost for words after the explosive performance, the sponsor asked when the orchestra had rehearsed the Mahler. Rattle explained that their last rehearsal was in the hall that morning, to which the sales director imperiously replied: "Ah yes, that was when we were holding our board meeting". Quick as a flash the 24 year old Simon replied "Of course, but your board meeting doesn't have the meter changes that Mahler wrote in that second movement".

At that time Simon Rattle struck me an exceptionally personable and hugely talented musician who was at risk from his own ambition and from the ambitions of those close to him, and my opinion remains unchanged today. Classical musicians are, like all of us, human beings and not saints, and hagiographies such as the recent BBC Two TV documentary about him Making of a Maestro do little to make classical music more accessible. In an hour devoted entirely to Simon Rattle, did not his impending departure from Berlin merit at least one mention, yet alone discussion of the reasons behind it? Would not objectivity have been better served by recounting how it was both talent and ambition that took Rattle to Berlin? Would not recounting the following incident have helped audiences really understand the making of a maestro? It is quoted from the official history of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra where Simon was associate conductor from 1983 to 1985. This incident, incidentally, has considerable relevance to his advocacy of a new London concert hall.
It was true that Rattle did overstep the mark on one occasion when he quite blatantly used the [BBC Scottish Symphony] orchestra to rehearse Maxwell Davies' First Symphony, the premiere of which he gave in London with the Philharmonia. The work "is just about playable" said Rattle. Peter Maxwell Davies expressed his gratitude in a letter to The Times at the time of the strike. The orchestra had, as ever, been wonderfully cooperative, but neither Rattle nor Maxwell Davies seems to have been aware that many of them, and many musicians in Scotland, felt the whole affair a gross and insensitive insult. Rattle and Martin Dalby [head of music BBC Scotland who sanctioned it] remain unrepentant...
All too often we hear the lament that classical music is not promoted hard enough. Which is nonsense, classical music is being promoted too hard; in fact it is being promoted to death. The process of beatification which Simon Rattle, Gustavo Dudamel and other musical celebrities are undergoing is doing more harm than good, not least by further straining classical music's already fissile funding model . But it is harmful in another way, because making classical music more human and more accessible is the name of the game, yet turning its highest profile practitioners into demigods makes the art form even less human and less accessible. Providing positive permission for the worship of celebrities also devalues non-celebrity music making; this has a profound impact on the reach of classical music as it brainwashes audiences into believing celebrity is good and amateur bad. The result is that making music is no longer enough, an amateur must make music on a YouTube audition in the hope of becoming a professional celebrity.

So the best of luck to the hugely talented Simon Rattle at the London Symphony Orchestra, or wherever else he lands his next gig. But if we were honest and admitted that celebrity conductors are, of necessity, Machiavellian beings with batons of gold but feet of clay, a whole new audience would relate to them. QED.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why the BBC's radio strategy does not make sound sense


It is not just Simon Rattle who is talking about sound quality. More evidence that sound is back on the agenda comes from the new controller of BBC Radio 3 Alan Davey. In his presentation to the recent Association of British Orchestras conference Davey placed considerable emphasis on the BBC's traditional emphasis on sound quality, telling delegates how Radio 3 will "through high-quality crafted broadcast sound, say to people that these great treasures are for you and here’s a way in for you", and he has repeated this emphasis on sound quality in a tweet.

There is a lot of evidence to confirm the BBC's long-standing committed to high-quality sound. In addition to Radio 3 FM broadcasts there is 5.1 surround sound for BBC Four HD TV relays of the Proms, and also experimental 4.0 webcasts of the Proms. The 4.0 webcast experiment slipped under the classical radar, but is of considerable importance as it exploits the HTML5 standard which has a native audio API (application programming interface) allowing web browsers to play multi-channel sound without installing additional software. For the 2014 Proms the 4.0 experiments used the simple approach of feeding hall only reverberation to the rear channels. But this test has considerable significance as it could be the first step towards challenging the orthodoxy of concert hall sound by offering alternative sound mixes for different audiences.

But, with FM frequencies scheduled for closure and internet access becoming ubiquitous, the future battleground for radio audiences will be online. When Alan Davey spoke at the AOBO conference three weeks ago, in addition to FM broadcasts, Radio 3 offered via the internet and iPlayer an everyday 192kbps AAC audio stream. (Audio sampling rates are measured in kilobites per second - kbps; the higher the sampling rate the better the sound). But the jewel in the crown as far as sound quality is concerned, was the Radio 3 HD (high definition) stream at the vastly superior sampling rate of 320 kbps. The availability of the 320 kbps internet stream encouraged a number of people to invest in dedicated network music players (aka internet tuners) such as the Cambridge Audio NP 30 which retails for around £400.

But as we have come to expect from the BBC, it is not all good news. Last week, Radio 3 listeners who had invested in expensive devices such as the Cambridge Audio NP 30 found that they could no longer receive the station's much spun - "high-quality crafted broadcast sound" via the HD stream. The reason is that with no prior notification other than an arcane explanation in an obscure blog for techies, the BBC had discontinued the internet streams using the SHOUTcast and WMA (Windows Media Audio) streaming standards. The Radio 3 HD stream has switched to a chunked HTTP stream using Apple’s HLS protocol. This causes a major problem, because the HLS protocol is new and not supported by many network streaming devices including the popular Cambridge Audio NP 30. So, in plain language, a lot of people who had invested in hardware at the behest of the BBC to listen specifically to Radio 3 HD sound using the 320 kbps SHOUTcast AAC standard currently have very expensive paperweights.

This debacle raises a number of concerns. The current changes to BBC audio streams are being justified by the need to keep pace with changing internet standards, and there is much truth in that justification. But there may well be more sinister strategic justifications. Music streaming services such as Spotify are hitting radio audiences - particularly Radio 3's - hard, and the BBC's traditional high ground of FM frequencies is likely to be cut from under its feet in the near future. In addition, broadcasters have failed to establish DAB radios as the substitute for FM receivers. Which means the key to future radio audiences is internet streaming via home computer networks. The latest changes to BBC internet streams push listeners towards the iPlayer radio portal, which supports HD sound. In fact the current changes are grouped within the BBC under the project heading of 'audio factory'. Realigning internet accesss towards iPlayer can be seen as a way of creating a proprietary portal for BBC content in competition with streaming services such as Spotify. This changes the role of the BBC from making great programmes to controlling access to the programmes they make, irrespective of their quality. This strategic shift is given more urgency by the success of Amazon in its new combined role of content provider and content creator.

The emergence of sound quality high on the agenda of the new Radio 3 controller also invites attention. The BBC have been repeatedly accused of cloning Classic FM, and in reaction to this perfectly valid criticism has majored - with little success - on points of difference such as the higher proportion of live, as opposed to recorded, music on Radio 3. Classic FM is currently tied to relatively lo-fi sound via FM frequencies and 48 kbps AAC and 128 kbps MP3 internet streams. I suspect that when HD sound is fully integrated into the BBC iPlayer audio factory project, Radio 3 presenters will be banging on every few minutes about 'Radio 3 HD sound' in the same way that they currently bang on about 'live' (as opposed to dead?) concerts.

To put this seemingly arcane topic into perspective, the difficult-to-find BBC blog post detailing the changes to Radio 3 audio streams generated 442 irate comments in 48 hours - which is considerably more than have been generated by Simon Rattle's views on the sound in London concert halls. Internet protocols and standards are constantly changing, and it is quite right that the BBC is migrating their audio streams to the emerging standards. But this latest change has been handled, taking a lenient view, in a clumsy fashion. Or taking a critical view, it has been handled in a typically arrogant way that ignores the need for backward compatibility, and which serves the BBC brand instead of serving its license fee paying listeners.

The BBC's senior product manager 'audio factory' Jim Simmons has been made the fall guy for this latest piece of corporate chicanery. In a grovelling apology on the BBC blog Simmons blames inadequate funding for the damaging communications failure, explaining "I'm afraid you've just got me, a blog and my monotone voice recorded in my loft so that I don't incur studio costs". At the Association of British Orchestras conference the boasting about the BBC's "high-quality crafted broadcast sound... for you" was done by Radio 3 controller Alan Davey and his boss Helen Boaden, who is director of BBC Radio. Boaden's remuneration is £352,900 and Davey's predecessor Roger Wright received total remuneration of £227,450 (Davey's BBC salary is not yet available), while star Radio 3 presenter Katie Derham moved from ITN to the BBC for a reported salary of £250,000, These figures compare with prime minister David Cameron's salary of £142,000. Despite protestations by director general Tony Hall, the problem at the BBC is not inadequate funding. The problem is that the £3.72 billion it receives each year from TV licenses is being spent on the wrong things.

Update Feb 17 - for once the story ends happily.

My thanks go to the Friends of Radio 3 for their input; however the views expressed in this blog are entirely my own. A complex and arcane technical subject has had to be simplified to produce a manageable blog post, and I am sure readers will point out any inevitable oversimplification. Header photo was taken by me at a caravanserai on the old road between Marrakech and Essaouira in Morocco. 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). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Howells' Clavichord


Others have written eloquently about John McCabe who died yesterday. I would like to add my own small tribute to his talent as a pianist by reminding readers of his recording of Herbert Howells' two books of keyboard pieces, Lambert's Clavichord and Howells' Clavichord. These affectionate musical tributes by Howells to, among others, Malcolm Arnold, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, Sir Adrian Boult, William Walton and Edmund Rubbra are really brought to life by John McCabe's exquisite playing. I first wrote about these little-known works in March 2006, and to Hyperion's credit they remains in the catalogue on the budget Helios label. This CD of tributes to underrated musicians itself provides a very appropriate tribute to a remarkable composer and pianist who will be much missed.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Beware of creating museums of sound


A short while ago we were told by Universal Music ceo Max Hole that the problem with classical music in London is that it is performed in elitist state-of-the-art concert halls. Now we are being told by former Universal Music recording artist Simon Rattle that the problem with classical music in London is that there is no elitist state-of-the-art concert hall to perform in. If we overlook the irony it is good that sound is back on the agenda, but it is also important that the right agenda is pursued.

Unlike other blogs which have opportunistically jumped from the Max Hole to Simon Rattle bandwagon, On An Overgrown Path has been consistent in its position that nada brahma - sound is god. Back in 2008 the question was asked here Does the sound matter anymore? and there have been numerous posts discussing the importance of concert hall sound. But recently my position has shifted as I have recognised the irreversible and fundamental change in the way music - including classical music - is being consumed due to the hegemony of mobile listening via headphones. Last year several posts appeared On An Overgrown Path questioning the validity of the concept of 'concert hall sound' and these culminated in a post titled No one mixes for speakers these days. The arguments advanced in that post are very relevant to the concert hall sound bandwagon that is currently gathering momentum, so it is worth recapping on the key points.

Changes in listening habits fuelled by the rise of mobile technologies have dramatically changed the expectations of new and existing audiences, and it is an established fact that headphones are now the most popular way to listen to recorded music. The significant difference between headphones sound and concert hall sound may explain why classical music is struggling to connect with new young concertgoers. These shifting sonic explanations have received very little attention to date, whereas cosmetics such as dress codes have, which means the reassessment of sonic expectations is long overdue.

The true sound of an orchestra is the sound made by the instruments before any reverberation is added by the hall in which they are being played. Which means the 'true' sound is that heard in the acoustically dead space of an anechoic chamber, or in the open air. But sound totally devoid of reverberation is very unpleasant for both the audience and the players; which is why in the 18th century the concert hall as we know it today began to evolve. Today there are many fine concert halls; but they are tied to conventions established by the generation of iconic halls that were built in the last decades of the 19th century; these include the Concertguebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna. These halls, together with more modern auditiria such as Snape Maltings, are quite rightly acclaimed for their acoustics. However, the acclaimed sound heard in them is not the true sound of an orchestra: it is the result of a subjective 'ideal reverberation time of around 1.8 seconds created artificially by acoustic experts using sound reflecting building materials. And that is the key point - human behaviour and acoustic technology have changed considerably since the late 19th century, yet the sonic conventions of the concert hall have remained unchanged since then.

Because today's concert halls are voiced by conventions dating back more than a century, there is a real danger they will become museums of sound that are irrelevant to the binaural sound world that is the norm outside. Let me emphasise that I am not suggesting stacks of PA speakers at chamber music recitals or heavily compressed mixes for classical recordings. What I am saying is that some important sonic conventions have become anachronisms and need questioning. State of the art digital sound processing and speaker technologies offer almost unlimited potential for a nuanced reshaping of the sound of live classical music and recordings to suit contemporary ears. To connect with Generation Y audiences classical music needs to be heard in a new breed of concert halls where the customisable sound is created by a combination of architects working with bricks and mortar and sound shapers working with digital technologies. Two composers who I admire enormously, Jonathan Harvey and John Luther Adams, have shown in different ways that sonic conventions can be questioned without throwing the artistic baby out with the bathwater.

It may be surprising to hear a vociferous advocate of 'serving the music' arguing for digitally voiced concert halls. But I argue for serving the music, not for serving a sonic convention that dates back more than a century. Simon Rattle is right to argue that London needs a new concert hall. But he is wrong to argue that the Philharmonie - seen above - should be moved across the Channel; because London and other cities need a new kind of concert hall that will serve the future as well as the past. We need informed debate about how concert halls can change and adapt to a new generation of audiences. What we don't need is everyone jumping on a bandwagon that will simply run out of steam when the Berlin Philharmonic leaves town.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music


That photo of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Julian Bream appears on the late composer's website. Ten years ago I was literally very close to Sir Malcolm's music. He spent his final years being tended by his carer Anthony Day in Attleborough just a few miles from where I live in Norfolk. I managed Sir Malcolm's website and one of my first posts about his music dates from that time. Following Sir Malcolm's death in 2006 I never lost my appreciation of his music, but it featured less frequently in my listening. However, recently I have returned to his symphonies, and listening to them again has raised some important questions. His nine symphonies are the product of a master craftsman. They move forward from Mahler and Shostakovich, yet should be immediately accessible to contemporary audiences saturated in the music of those two composers. But, despite this, Sir Malcolm Arnold's symphonies remain unknown outside a small circle of admirers. Why?


Let me make it clear at this point that this post is not yet another plea for more Malcolm Arnold. It is a much needed exploration of the process that determines the popularity of composers, a process that, as I will explain, has important implications for widening the audience for classical music. Sir Malcolm Arnold's music is just a convenient example. I am sure readers can suggest many other composers from around the world who could be used as an example - Albéric Magnard, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Arnold Bax, Alan Hovhaness, Eduard Tubin, André Jolivet and Edmund Rubbra are just a few who spring to mind. A cursory glance through concert programmes shows that the music of Mahler receives a thousand times more exposure than Sir Malcolm Arnold's or that from any of the composers mentioned above. Which again prompts the question of why? Let's accept for a moment that the concept of a 'better' composer is meaningful. Is Mahler's music a thousand times better than Arnold's? I do not argue that the two composers are equal; but I do argue that the received wisdom reflected in concert programming that Mahler's extant nine symphonies are a thousand times 'better' than Sir Malcolm's is a dangerous doctrine that is damaging classical music.


Early championing by Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos in the States and Sir John Barbirolli in Europe introduced Mahler's music to a mass audience. Leonard Bernstein's Mahler in the concert hall and on record in the 1970s provided the tipping point, together with advocacy in Europe by Sir Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink in Europe. The composer's popularity was boosted by the addition of pioneering cycles of his symphonies to a record catalogue which, at the time, did not contain multiple versions of every classical work ever composed. All of this has led to Mahler being one of the most performed composer's in the twenty-first century. The Mahler revival and his subsequent popularity is usually attributed to this surge in availability of live and recorded performances of his music. But the process was more complex than that. Respected figures such as Stokowski, Bernstein, Solti and Haitink gave audiences positive permission to like music that fifty years earlier Arnold Bax had described as eccentric, long-winded and muddleheaded. Moreover the endorsement of major record labels gave further permission for audiences to like and explore this unfamiliar music. It is this little-understood process of permissions that, I propose, explains the huge differences in popularity between composers of broadly similar merit.


The role of permissions is receiving considerable attention in the areas of normative systems, jurisprudence and - of particular relevance to this discussion - information management. In a paper for the Journal of Applied Logic, Audun Stolpe of the University of Oslo identifies two main categories of permission. Negative permission allows an actions unless the action is specifically prohibited, whereas an action is only positively permitted if, and only if, a code explicitly permits it. Based on this approach, I am proposing that the theory of permissions explains the skewing of classical music repertoire towards a small group of favoured composers. If permission theory is deemed applicable to classical music in the micro context of individual composers, there is potential in exploring whether the absence of positive permissions in mainstream media and in the education sector explains the decline in the popularity of classical music at a macro level.


My thesis is that the huge difference in profile between Mahler and Arnold is not because Mahler is a thousand times 'better' composer than Arnold, but is because a network of permissions that is often mediated by opaque commercial agendas determines the exposure a composer receives, which in turn determines popularity. In the 1970s respected conductors and established record labels gave audiences positive permission to like the little-known music of Mahler. But fast forward to 2015 when the influential permission granting conductors are churning out the same narrow range of repertoire - currently Mahler and Sibelius. This skewing of the repertoire is aided and abetted by the all-powerful management agents who boost their earning by sending their clients on tour to wherever there is money wherever there is money performing Mahler.


Occasional token performances of Malcolm Arnold and other little-known composers are no more than negative permissions, which lack the positive authority for audiences to like this unfamiliar music. Yes, visionary conductors such as the late and much-missed Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox gave positive permission for audiences to like Arnold - and Bax and Rubbra - and today the indomitable Kenneth Woods is doing the same for Hans Gal. But, to the discredit of the classical music establishment, none of these conductors had or have the international profile to grant global permission.


A number of responses to my recent post 'Classical music must go on a diet to survive' expressed the view that not only is there too much classical music today, but there is too much of the same music. To take a topical example, the current London residency by the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle is spread across five concerts. The repertoire for these concerts comprises no less than seven Sibelius symphonies plus the composer's Violin Concerto, a Mahler symphony (no 2.) played twice, and two token - in presence not stature - performances of the sixteen minute 'Tableau for orchestra' by the little-known Helmut Lachenmann. In an earlier post I expressed the view that classical music's big opportunity is not a mythical new younger audience, but the current audience. Based on this assertion, I suggest that the current obsession with the 'short head' of repertoire - Mahler, Sibelius etc - at the expense of the 'long tail' - Malcolm Arnold etc - is stifling an important opportunity to expand the market. If every current audience member attending ten concerts in a year (that's less than one a month) was persuaded to come to one more concert, the classical music audience would increase by 10%. Similarly if every classical music buyer purchasing 10 CDs (or streams/downloads) a year bought one more CD, the market would grow by 10%. And, at the risk of repeating myself, if every classical radio station listener increased their listening from 10 to 11 hours a week, the classical radio audience would be 10% bigger. And that 10% growth is a lot better than classical music's big new ideas are currently achieving.


How much more Mahler and Sibelius can the vital core audience take? Does the catalogue really need another Zarathustra? But 10% growth could be achieved by broadening the tastes of the existing audience. To do this concertgoers need to be given positive permission to like the music of Malcolm Arnold et al. Which involves more than token performances: it involves total commitment from celebrity conductors, concert promoters, music festivals and media organisations to treat these composers as serious musicians, not freak shows. All musicians, especially those earning a king's ransom - have an obligation to broaden classical music's tunnel vision repertoire. This involves programming complete cycles of little known music at the expense anniversary composers, and it will not produce short term results. But we have to accept that there are no quick fixes that will extend classical music's reach. Classical music's big opportunity is its current audience, and giving that current audience positive permission to like a wider range of music is the first step along a road in turning a major opportunity into audience numbers.


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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Listeners are smarter than many influential people think

Down with soundbites! Listeners are much smarter than many broadcast and concert programmers understand.
That comment was added by Grammy winner John Luther Adams when he shared yesterday's Overgrown Path post on Facebook. Header image shows The Place Where You Go to Listen, a sound and light environment created by the composer for the University of Alaska's Museum of the North. This installation rejects the micro viewpoint, and instead uses macro events to create a dynamic soundscape from the perennial rhythm of day and night, the phases of the moon, seismic movements within the earth, and the geomagnetic turbulence of the aurora borealis.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

Become winner


That annual orgy of self-congratulation by the remnants of the American record industry, the Grammy awards, has little credibility. But the award last night for best contemporary classical composition to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean was a good call. John Luther Adams - seen above - is a composer with something important to say who says it well, and says it without taking the easy and fashionable option of trading integrity for audience numbers. Awarding a Grammy to Become Ocean gives the lie to the ridiculous assertion by director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden that the "creation of snackable access to classical content is the key to audience engagement". You can't be more audience engaged than a Grammy winner. Become Ocean plays for 42 minutes 13 seconds in one unbroken movement, and the award winning CD from Cantaloupe Music lacks the sub-track index numbers needed to turn it into snackable content.

No review samples used in this post. Photo via WQXR. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Hindu sonatas and interludes


Last month I reported on the loss in transit of Raga Virga from Ars Choralis Coeln and Amelia Cuni. Now I am happy to report that a replacement CD has arrived and was certainly well worth waiting for. My earlier description of Raga Virga as Indian Dhrupad songs fused with the chant of Hildegard von Bingen fails to do this project justice. Raga Virga does not so much fuse past traditions as build on them to create something entirely new. Star of the show is Amelia Cuni, seen in the foreground above. She trained in the North Indian Dhrupad vocal tradition and has recorded her own realisation of John Cage's eighteen microtonal ragas from 'Solos for Voice 3–58' in his 'Song Books' - sample here.

Cage is usually stereotyped as a Zen Buddhist composer. But Hinduism also shaped his music, and, in fact one commentator talks of Cage’s 'borrowings' from the British-Ceylonese art historian and metaphysician Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Cage is known to have studied Coomaraswamy's writings, and there there has been much debate as to the degree of influence exerted on the composer by a philosopher who has been described as "ultraconservative". But there is evidence of influence, if not of borrowing. Coomaraswamy’s book The Dance of the Shiva discusses rasa and the Hindu view of beauty and art, and one of Cage's most important works, the 'Sonatas and Interludes' for prepared piano, is shaped by the Hindu aesthetic theory of rasa which defines the nine main emotional states. Coomaraswamy is grouped with the conservative perennialists, and, in view of this, Cage's artistic direction could be considered as a radical return to perennial values, rather than breaking radically new ground. This very different viewpoint challenges another stereotype - Cage the iconoclast - and is reinforced by his opinion that "[Nam June] Paik's involvement with sex, introducing it into music does not conduce towards sounds being sounds".

Hinduism also influenced Cage via his pupil the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai. In 1946 Sarabhai gave Cage a copy of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and the 19th century Indian mystic shared with Coomaraswamy the view originally expressed by Thomas Aquinas that "Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation". This philosophy influenced Cage's experiments with chance composition techniques; these can be viewed as an extension of Chaos Theory, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent can cause a hurricane on another.

The view that art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation stands in direct contrast to current views that art is the imitation of science - music as a digital commodity - and that art is the imitation of industry - as in the recent statement by Helen Boaden explaining that "the BBC should provide the risk capital of creative industries". (This industrial metaphor is put into perspective by a Facebook comment on my recent post Stop trying to serve everybody, instead just serve the music which suggested that if classical music is treated as an industry, it can expect to be downsized and outsourced). Thankfully Raga Virga eschews these fashionable views, and instead provides a line of transmission via John Cage and Amelia Cuni of Gita Sarabhai's belief - which so influenced Cage - that "The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences".

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Friday, February 06, 2015

McMusic will not solve classical music's problems


At the recent Association of British Orchestras Conference the director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden declared that Radio 3 listener numbers do not represent a station in crisis, and went on to propose that the "creation of snackable access to classical content is the key to audience engagement". Since the ABO conference the latest RAJAR audience figures have been published, and it is instructive to review Ms. Boaden's two statement in the view of these new figures.

The key measurement for radio audience is the number of listeners multiplied by the hours they listen, which gives total listening hours. When Ms. Boaden was appointed director of BBC Radio in February 2103, Radio 3 total listening hours stood at 13.8 million (Q1 2013). RAJAR data published this week reports that in the most recent quarter (Q4 2014) the station's total listening hours dropped to 10.8 million. This is a plunge of 22.1% in less than two years, which represents a crisis in my book if not in Ms. Boaden's. McMusic will not solve classical music's problems, because, as the RAJAR data indicates, snackable content does no more than deliver face-saving audience numbers at the expense of the key metric of audience robustness.

Radio 3's continuing catastrophic performance was, as usual, glossed over by the official BBC press release which chose to spin the less damning headline audience size. The damaging fashion for McMusic in the form of 'snackable' content - sampled symphonies etc - must be a contributory factor to the reduction in listening hours, and these new audience figures once again pose the question asked in a 2011 Overgrown Path post - do the arts need wide or deep audiences? Now excuse me while I listen to Kaikhosru Sorabji four hour Opus Clavicembalisticum, a work I assume which will not be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in the near future. You can read about my own money-where-the-mouth-is experiments with distinctly non-snackable content in 'New music premiere for internet radio' and 'Music of Black Africa on Future Radio'.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Yet another inconvenient truth


Warner Classics has emailed journalists a promotional video of opera star Joyce DiDonato at the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the gay rights movement - see above. The press release states that she sang as a "Tribute to victims of intolerance and injustice", and that the intimate audience included activists who forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage. On May 1 Ms. DiDonato takes her Grammy nominated 'Drama Queens' project to the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman. Article 223 of the Omani Penal Code states that: "Any one who commits erotic acts with a person of the same sex shall be sentenced to imprisonment from six months to three years". Same-sex marriage is, of course, not recognized in Oman. More inconvenient truths here.

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