Sunday, June 28, 2015

Music as a bridge between form and the formless


It was only when I stood on the Aswan High Dam and looked south across Lake Nasser that I really understood the tragedy of the Nubian people. Beneath more than 2000 square miles of water lie the Nubian homelands that were flooded when the dam was built in the 1960s, and between the dam and Aswan are the soulless villages that the Nubians were resettled in. Hamza El Din (1929-2006) - seen above - made it his mission to preserve the Nubian culture that was being extinguished by the waters of Lake Nasser. He was born in the Nubian village of Toshka which was flooded when the High Dam was built. After training as an electrical engineer he went on to study Arabic music in Cairo and Western music at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome before moving to the West Coast of the States. He played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, recorded two albums for Vanguard, jammed with the Grateful Dead and taught at the the legendary Mills College in Oakland, California. A collaboration with the Kronos Quartet followed an introduction by Terry Riley, and Hamza El Din's sparse and repetitive oud lines are though to have influenced the development of the minimalist style. His two classic albums are Escalay (The Water Wheel) - seen above - recorded for Nonesuch in 1971, and Eclipse, produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in 1988.

The Nubians practise a syncretic mix of Islam and ancient animism, and Hamza El Din was influenced by Sufi mysticism. Dr H.J. Witteveen has written that: "Of all the arts music has a particular spiritual value and meaning, because it helps [us] to concentrate or meditate independently of thought: and therefore music seems to be the bridge between form and the formless. This is why music has always played an important role in Sufism." The Nubian Dhul-Nun al-Misri (830 CE) was an Egyptian hermetic and Sufi who, according to the authoritative British Orientalist R A Nicholson, "above all others gave to the Sufi doctrine its permanent shape". Animistic and shamanistic elements mix with Islam in the Nubian religion, and the anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Fred Katz have described how in shamanistic rituals, music provides "pathways and bannisters" between the familiar form of everyday waking consciousness and the formless mystery of higher levels of consciousness. That line of transmission from Hamza El Din to the Minimalists continues through to John Luther Adams. The shamanist rituals of indigenous Alaskans influence John Luther Adams' post-minimalist music - notably in Strange and Sacred Noise - and his best known work Become Ocean has a coincidental but poignant link to the tragedy of the Nubians.

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Conflict cannot exist without agreement

When nations fight they must first agree on something to fight about. Conflict cannot exist without agreement, an agreement more fundamental than the conflict. To fight there must be cooperation.
Those words come from Jonathan Harvey in his 1999 book In Quest of Spirit; such penetrating insight supports the view I expressed at the time of his death that Jonathan had a Bodhisattva mind. Header graphic is Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem's ECM CD Le Voyage de Sahar.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Where have all the meaningful experiences gone?

Don't open the door to the study and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do
Those wise words are by the Sufi master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and the photo shows an original Zuckermann harpsichord kit from 1968. I have recounted here before how during the second half of the twentieth century the harpsichord came back from the dead to reclaim its rightful position on the concert platform. Wolfgang Zuckermann's $150 harpsichord kits, which were launched in 1959, played a major roler in this rehabilitation, which extended beyond early music into the works of John Cage, Elliott Carter and Maurice Ohana. In the 1960s John Cage and Merce Cunningham were neighbours of Zuckermann in Greenwich Village, and the premiere of Cage's HPSCHD in 1969 used Zuckermann harpsichords.

Wolfgang Zuckermann sold his harpsichord business in 1969 and left America in protest against the Vietnam war. He eventually settled in France and ran an idiosyncratic bookshop in Avignon until he retired in aged 87 - I took the photo of him below shortly before he retired in 2008*. My interest in the godfather of the modern harpsichord recently led me to a fascinating account of building a Zuckermann kit like the one seen above. Its author James Gollin explains that "There is a special satisfaction, I admit, in being able to play music on an instrument you’ve built yourself" and quotes Wolfgang Zuckermann as saying "Some [people] actually looked forward to the kind of meaningful experience associated with building an instrument.”

Building an instrument, playing an instrument, making music, even listening to live music - where have all the meaningful experiences gone? Milan Kundera suggests in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that once we lose the ability to express an emotion, the capacity to feel that emotion is eventually lost. There is a strong case for arguing that one we lose the ability to express music, so we lose the ability to appreciate music.



* It is pleasing to report that Wolfgang Zuckermann's bookshop in Avignon continues to thrive under its new owner Camille Vourch, as described in a 2013 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.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Twelve-tone donkey serenade


That photo was taken by me when hiking in the Samaria Gorge in Crete a few weeks ago. On my iPod playlist in Crete was the Violin Concerto by Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas, in the BIS recording by Georgios Demertzis accompanied by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nikos Christodoulou - sample here. Hans Keller, who knew a thing or two about these things, rated Skalkottas as one of the few great twentieth-century composers of ‘symphonic thought’, and considered him to be the only ‘symphonic genius’ after Schoenberg whose ‘genius’ remains to be discovered. Hans Keller died thirty years ago; but despite the advent of the digital age of plenty, Nikos Skalkottas' genius remains undiscovered.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Thoughts on a modern Greek tragedy

Then those who own a great deal, when they heard this creaking, were frightened. Because they know how to read every sign in detail, and often, from miles away, they can make out what profits them. So right away they put on the sandals of treachery. And half of them on one side and half on the other, they pulled the rest to and fro, saying: "Your deeds are good and fine, and here you see the closed gateway to the courtyard of lambs. Raise your hand and we are with you, and we'll take care of the fire and the iron. Don't worry about homes, don't feel sorry for families, don't ever let the voice of son or father or younger brother stop you. Should any one of you worry or feel sorry or stop, let him know this: his will be the sin, and on his head will fall the fire and iron we brought."
That quote comes the monumental poetic cycle The Axion Esti by 1979 Nobel Literature Prize laureate Odysseus Elytis. The extract is taken from the translation by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis, and in their preface the translators describe The Axion Esti as "an image of the contemporary Greek consciousness through the developing perspective of a first-person persona who is at once the poet himself and the voice of his country". Mikis Theodorakis mirrored Odysseus Elytis' radical prose with revolutionary music to create the eponymous work that is undoubtedly the composer's masterpiece: that is the classic 1964 recording released by EMI Greece below*:


The accompanying photos** were taken by me two weeks ago in the port of Chania on the Greek island of Crete, and I am suggesting that the sub-text of these images together with that of The Axion Esti will provide the impetus for a resolution of the current economic crisis in Greece. Crete lies on the geological and cultural faultline between Europe, Asia and Africa, and this is reflected in the architecture seen in the photos. Seen in the top photo is the Orthodox Church of St Nicolas in the Turkish quarter of Chania. This was built as as an Orthodox church, then converted into a mosque during the two centuries of Ottoman rule; it was returned to the Orthodox faith when the Turks left, but one of the minarets that were added has been left standing. The former mosque of Yiali Tzami on the quayside in the photo below was built shortly after Chania was captured by the Turks in 1645. Turkish forces were expelled from Crete in 1898, but the mosque was used for worship until 1923 when the last Muslims left the island. The minarets were demolished in the early 20th century and the mosque is now an exhibition space.

Crete is equidistant from mainland Europe, Africa, and Asia; it is close to the politically volatile Middle East and North Africa, including the flashpoints of Libya and Egypt. To the south of Crete is the main shipping lane for oil traffic using the Suez Canal. Ten miles east from where my photos were taken is Chania is the military base and airport at Souda Bay. This military base is occupied by the U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay. As the official US Military website explains:

The presence of U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay is dedicated to taking care of the fleet and airborne operations in this strategically critical area of the world, which is their primary mission, and to building a new spirit of cooperation with our Greek Allies. NSA Souda Bay routinely functions as a Naval Operating Base, Naval Air Station and Naval Weapons Station. NSA Souda Bay skillfully orchestrated joint U.S. Navy (USN) / U.S. Air Force (USAF) reconnaissance missions and air refueling support for Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and other joint USN/USAF and multi-national operations.
The Souda Bay base is currenly being upgraded to a multi-role 'hub' "providing crucial air-links for USAF strategic airlift in support of CENTCOM and Africa Area contingency operations". Off the coast of Crete is a NATO missile firing range; one of the main users of this range is austerity advocate Germany, and it was here that the US 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade fired a live Patriot missile for the first time in Europe.

Souda Bay is now the only US military base in Greece, but strategically it is very important. And Greece itself is no minor player when it comes to defense: despite the current economic crisis Greece is the second biggest defense spender among the twenty-seven NATO countries in relation to its GDP. Greece spends more than 10 billion euros a year on defense. 42% of its arms purchases are from the all-powerful US military/industrial complex and 25% from Germany. Neighbouring NATO member Turkey is never far from political meltdown, a beleaguered Greece is cosying up to Russia, and the CIA backed the right wing military junta in Greece from 1967 to 1974. So I predict that the following call will be made to Germany from the red phone in the White House in the next few days: "Hi Angie baby; it's OK to talk because I've told the spooks to turn the phone tap off. Do keep the pressure on those Greek bastards. But remember when push comes to shove we need them as much as they need us. Have a nice day." Or as The Axion Esti tells us: "Then those who own a great deal, when they heard this creaking, were frightened".




* The 1964 EMI Greece recording is very difficult to find outside Greece. Other versions are available: these include a 1982 recording for Channel Classics conducted by the composer. Unfortunately this is, in my view, fatally flawed by being given in a German translation.
** Footer photo was taken from the balcony of our room in the Porto Antico in Chania. My thanks go to Sophia for the hospitality in her outstanding hotel.
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Friday, June 19, 2015

On the western fringe of Islam


With both Pope Francis and Alex Ross quoting the ninth century Sufi mystic Ali al-Khawas in the same week, we can safely assume that Sufism has finally hit the big time. My photo shows the darîh (shrine) of the Sufi marabout (saint) Sidi Moussa at Aglou on the Atlantic coast in southern Morocco. This is the western fringe of Islam, and Sufism absorbs local cultures as it travels. The animistic practices absorbed by the mystical brotherhood from Jajouka in the north of Morocco and the gnawa from the sub-Saharan south are examples of this adaption. Aglou is Berber country, and the Berbers mix observance of saintly and animistic cults with more orthodox Islam in a syncretic tradition known as Maraboutic Islam. This finds expression in the region's music, most notably among the Gnawa who blend their sub-Saharan origins with Berber and Sufi influences.

I took the header photo during my recent travels in Morocco, and the new album Taziri from Mehdi Nassouli and Titi Robin was at the top of my iPod play list there. Multi-instrumentalist Mehdi Nassouli is a product of the south Moroccan Berber tradition and he studied with several Gnawa maâ-lems (masters). In 2010 I enthusiastically reviewed his concert at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris with French virtuoso guitarist, composer, and musical nomad Titi Robin. In a sleeve note Titi Robin describes Taziri as "un blues Méditerranée" - sample here. Ali al-Khawas told us that: "Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry". So I am sure Pope Francis would approve of Mehdi Nassouli's new album.



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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Give us something else, give us something new


Carl Nielsen declared: "Give us something else, give us something new... and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional". But his pleadings continue to be ignored, and in 2015 the conventions of composer anniversaries dictate that we hear little newer than a mix of Nielsen and Sibelius. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge admirer of Nielsen's music and it deserves to be heard more. But the opportunity to explore important music on its margins is being missed.

At the top of the list of missed opportunities are Robert Simpson's eleven symphonies. Robert Simpson (1921-1997) was an authority on Nielsen's music, and his opus includes the 'Variations on a theme by Nielsen'. Much is made of the influence of Nielsen and Bruckner on Simpson's symphonies; which is unfair, as he speaks with a voice that is his own. Less is made of the influence of Haydn, which is also unfair. Simpson was heavily influenced by Haydn, and it is a Haydenesque preoccupation with form over feeling that gives Simpson's symphonies an important place in the canon of late 20th century orchestral music.

There have been only three performances of Robert Simpson symphonies at the BBC Proms, the last in 1990, Simpson famously blamed Proms supremo and champion of the avant garde William Glock for the suppression of his symphonies, which is also unfair. In my view Simpson's eleven masterly symphonies have failed to find a place in the repertoire not just because they lacked the imprimatur of the Glock/Boulez circle, but also because they lack the overt emotionalism of Bax, Korngold and others contra avant gardists who have found audiences - albeit small ones - for their maverick symphonies.

It is significant that the only recordings of Simpson's symphonies in the catalogue are by Jascha Horenstein, Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley; all conductors who were not afraid to swim against the tide. It is also significant that Sir Adrian chose Horenstein's recording of Simpson's Third Symphony as one of his desert island discs on the eponymous BBC programme. (Horenstein's recording of the symphony can be heard complete via YouTube). Tod Handley's set of the eleven symphonies on Hyperion is one of the classics of the gramophone. Let us hope Hyperion also reissue Simpson's fifteen consummate quartets in an equally affordable bundle to mark the twentieth anniversary of the composer's death in 2017. That anniversary also gives new BBC Proms director David Pickard the ideal opportunity to make amends for the composer's unwarranted neglect by scheduling at least one of the symphonies in the 2017 Proms season.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Beats of India


My views on Cambridge seem to undulate continually from good to bad, although I'm still not particularly knocked out by the people I meet. However, I think most people going up to university suffer from misconceptions about the types they will meet there. Thinking they are going to find a place brimming over with interesting and enlightened people, it doesn't take them long to discover that the average student is in fact extraordinarily dull. So one just has to be patient and hope that one will eventually discover some of the above average. There does at the moment seem to be a hope of better things to come.

I went to an extremely interesting meeting of the Asian Music Circle the other night. It consisted of a lecture given by an Indian dancer about the themes and rhythms involved in Indian dancing as well as the philosophy behind it. There were also practical demonstrations given by him and his rather beautiful wife. It was all fascinating but so complicated that the mind boggled, and it made one aware of how far ahead of us the Indians are in certain artistic fields.
That is Nick Drake writing to his parents in November 1967. Nick studied at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge before abandoning academia for his all too short career as a singer-songwriter. He was fortunate to have Cambridge University's Asian Music Circle to mentor him, as Western popular culture's love affair with the Indian performing arts had not yet started: the Beatles did not travel to Rishikesh until February 1968 and Ravi Shankar performed at Woodstock a year later. Thankfully, in an age where music education is viewed as an expendable commodity, Cambridge continues its enlightened tradition of pedagogy. My header photo was taken yesterday evening at Beats of India, an interactive concert exploring the role of percussion in Hindustani and Canartic music presented by the university's Indian Classical Arts Society.

Diverse influences moulded Nick Drake's music. Masters of the guitar such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn are acknowledged as primary influences. But Nick traveled in Morocco in 1967 where he was exposed to Middle Eastern tunings and Sufi rhythms, and he moved in the same circles as Fairport Convention's Richard Thompson, who is a Sufi adept and was an early member of the Beshara Sufi community. Hindustani music absorbed elements of the qawalli style from the Sufis of Muslim Afghanistan, and it can be speculated that Nick's exposure to Indian rhythms in Cambridge was an influence. His 1967 letter is reproduced in the recently published Nick Drake: Remembered for a While; here is an excerpt from an essay by Robin Frederick in that invaluable anthology hinting at the influence of the beats of India:

The regular, rhythmic beat of a drum, the steady throb of a bass string, the whispery pulse of chanting voices - all cast a kind of hypnotic spell over us. These things tug on the body, pulling it towards a rhythmic centre, containing it, capturing it. When you listen to a fast-paced, steady rhythm, it will cause your breathing and heart rate to gradually increase. An even unhurried beat will slow down your heart and breathing rate. This is the the magic of musical rhythm - it communicates with the physical body in ways that are outside of your awareness and beyond your control. That's one reason why so many cultural and religious rituals involve the steady rhythm of drums and voices. When the body becomes entrained, the mind follows, falling into a kind of rocking motion; thoughts becoming steady, repetitive, trance-like and open to suggestion.

Listening to the incantory drone of Nick Drake's guitar on tracks like Three Hours or Cello Song is to let your mind and body be drawn into that hypnotic place. You might not notice it at first, In fact, if there are too many distractions, you might not feel its influence very much at all. But if you listen late at night, when life is willing to leave you alone for a while, and you focus on the rhtthm of a Nick Drake track, you'll slowly beging to experience a sense of vertigo, of being pulled out of your own internal sense of time and into his.

My thanks go to music therapist Lyle Sanford for introducing me to Nick Drake: Remembered for a While. No comps involved in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" fo critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sound that is unlimited, uncreated and immeasurable

I aspire to a future in which the deepest level of personality known to human beings, the radiant, still point beyond words, is encouraged by music to become manifest.
That is Jonathan Harvey writing in his exploration of music and spirituality In Quest of Spirit. The new Albany CD of his chamber music from the New York New Music Ensemble includes Cirrus Light. This is one of three works that Jonathan composed in the last year of his life when suffering from motor neurone disease, and his programme note explains how it was inspired by the "the long hours sitting in my wheelchair gazing at the summer sky". Cirrus Light lasts for just six minutes and is scored for solo clarinet. The programme note also describes how: "The cirrus clouds, which are so high, well formed and slow changing, were often illuminated by a beautiful light. The clarinet searches the sky for them". Jonathan drew inspiration and consolation from Buddhism, and Ajahn Sumedho, a teacher in the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition, speaks of using the word 'God' not as a theological expression, but as "a pointer to the unlimited, the uncreated and the immeasurable". Cirrus Light takes us beyond music into pure sound; it is not just the clarinet that is searching, but it is also the composer who is drawing closer to that radiant still point beyond words - to the unlimited, the uncreated and the immeasurable. Ineffable music and radiant performances. Hear or remain in darkness.

Albany Records' website offers a thirty second sample from Cirrus Light, while The Riot from the new CD can be heard complete on YouTube. Ajahn Sumedho quote is from the anthology of his teachings Don't Take Your Life Personally. No review samples were used in this post. 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, June 09, 2015

Classical music should not be the art of compromise


My thanks go to Joyce DiDonato for contributing to the debate about musicians performing in countries where human rights are under threat. Having spent some time reflecting on her contribution, I am convinced of Ms DiDonato's commitment to humanitarian action. But I am not convinced by the defence of her decision to openly criticise the Russian regime and refuse to perform in Russia, while remaining resolutely silent on Oman and China and performing high profile concerts there. Her beautiful news that classical music in the right hands can change the world is no surprise to me, and. many posts here have expressed that very sentiment . However, the view that I expressed in my recent posts was that commercially driven compromises are undermining that precious ability of classical music to change the world. My concern is that by remaining silent and thereby tacitly supporting despotic regimes, classical music is earning the same reputation as the much-ridiculed Formula One, namely that it will go anywhere if the money is right.

I agree with Joyce DiDonato that boycotting totalitarian regimes is no longer an option, but for a different reason. My header photo was taken in the museum dedicated to Pau Casals in his adopted home town of Prades in the Pays Catalan region of France. The great cellist refused to perform in countries not respecting democratic principles; in protest against Franco's fascist regime he went into exile from his native Spain and for four years refused to perform in public. But the days when a great musician can be so principled are long past. Classical music's cash hungry business model now makes striking compromises with repressive regimes and ethically compromised corporations a sad inevitability.

The most obvious of these compromises is when a musician performing in a country suffering under a repressive regime remains silent about the all too obvious repression. It is this silence that troubles me most. In the absence of any other convincing explanation I must assume that an artist who is vocal in their criticism of Russia but remains silent about China does so because they know that a dissenting voice may be punished. This is a very real threat; as Elton John discovered when he dedicated a performance in Bejing to political dissident and artist Ai Weiwei. Ms DiDonato's argument that appearing in nondemocratic countries carries far more power than staying away and simply denouncing policy is appealing. But staying silent on humanitarian abuses for fear of reprisals is conforming with the world, not changing it. Or in other words, those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.

Another example of a troubling compromise is selective activism. For instance Ms DiDonato writes of her emotional decision not to sing in Russia, but she is less emotional in her choice of Warner Classics as record label. This is part of Warner Music, which in turn is part of Access Industries Inc, an American conglomerate privately owned by USSR-born American entrepreneur Leonard Blavatnik. Although he is an American citizen, Blavatnik retains close links with Russia. One recent example is a $130 million investment in Lamoda, one of Russia’s largest online fashion retailers. The New Yorker has detailed Blavatnik's extensive business dealings with fellow Russian oligarchs and he has been described as "pro-Putin". Yet another example of these inevitable but ambiguous compromises is that Leonard Blavatnik and Joyce DiDonato sit together on the board of trustees of the Carnegie Hall.

But it is unfair to single out Ms DiDonato, because there are numerous other examples of awkward compromises. Another instance of selective activism is fellow Askonas Holt artist Daniel Barenboim, who is an outspoken critic of Israel's anti-Palestinian policies. Yet, without demur, Barenboim took his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to China in 2011, a country with a notorious history of persecuting Muslims and a long-running policy of cultural and human genocide in the occupied territory of Tibet. Such compromises may well be necessary for classical music to achieve its ambition of becoming a mass market art form; but they do weaken the argument that classical music can change the world.

Ms DiDonato's belief in " the joy, beauty, and profound, healing qualities of music" is shared by me. Long-term readers will know that I have celebrated those qualities in many posts over the years. But where we differ is that I find the qualities of joy and healing lacking all too often in the work of celebrity musicians on the lucrative 'London today, Bejing tomorrow' tour circuit. I too receive gratifying messages of support and the surprisingly large readership over the last decade for An Overgrown Path suggests that many others share my dissenting views. What Joyce DiDonato considers to be harsh criticism and cynicism, I and others consider to be inconvenient truths. We must never forget that freedom of expression - or the lack thereof in Russia, China and elsewhere - is the vital human right at the heart of this debate. That is why I invited Ms DiDonato to respond to my criticisms, and why I totally endorse her view that it would be a travesty to stop people speaking out as they feel compelled. Let us also remember that we are both very fortunate to live in countries where we can express our differing views without fear of censure.

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There are two sides to every coin


What Mikis Theodorakis described as the political dimension of the artist has been a leitmotif on An Overgrown Path over the years. In recent months several posts have focused on the decision of humanitarian activist Joyce DiDonato to perform in Oman and China, while remaining silent about the with well-documented histories of human rights violations in those countries. In recognition that there are two sides to every coin I invited Ms DiDonato to respond to my concerns. Her response is reproduced in full below, and my thoughts prompted by it are published as a separate post.
Dear Mr. Shingleton, I had intentions of crafting a lucid, erudite response to your numerous articles about my recent performances in Oman and Asia, which you have vociferously denounced, but as your postings kept pouring in, there seems to be only one possibility of response, and that is a defensive one, which I am admittedly loathe to do.

Yet, I naively promised you a response which I shall honour, hoping to eschew too much of a defensive tone. Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that this reply will be met with anything other than continued cynicism when you carry such headlines as “Let’s stop pretending classical music will change the world.” But I have beautiful news for you: it always has and it always will. Perhaps it hasn’t changed policy, but it absolutely changes the world for countless people - this is something which deserves much more than cynicism. But more on that in a moment.

Before getting to the heart of the matter, please allow me to set a few things straight immediately: I did not move to Askonas Holt in a desire for “mass exposure”, and making such an argument via an article in which someone who has absolutely no insider knowledge whatsoever of the move who purports to render a “guess” that this was the reason, or supposes that it was because of the “famously good Christmas parties” is simply irresponsible, and absolutely detached from the reality of how I have consistently handled my career. Secondly, the tours you allude to under the guise of this new-found grab for “exposure" were all negotiated by Intermusica years ago, and have no bearing whatsoever on my new management. I note this only to set the record straight and correct rabid misinformation.

But to the main point at hand: your issue with my performing in Oman and China while previously boycotting Russia in protest to their position against ‘Gay Propaganda’: in actuality, you have already found my answer by quoting my blog posting of September 5, 2013 before my appearance at the Last Night of the Proms:

"That doesn’t mean that I always know how to speak up, that I always do speak up, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I always know the most effective way to speak up in order to actually invite people to listen, and then – under the best of circumstances – perhaps to actually feel the call to action. No. I’m not an expert in any of those areas."

I stand by that statement fully, and it rings just as true today. I do not profess to know the most effective way to bring Equality for All, but I’m determined to try within my own capacity.

I’ve also spoken at length in various articles about several misgivings I have had, most notably with Alex Ross for the New Yorker very soon after the Proms dedication:

"She is aware of the pitfalls of artist activism. 'I have to choose my battles—I’m no politician,' she told me. 'I know that, as an American artist, I’m not in a position to sit in judgment. [For example,] should I not sing in Texas, because of what’s happening to women’s rights there? But I can’t paralyze myself, either. I don’t know if turning down the opera in Moscow was the right decision. Should I have gone there and spoken out? Should I have got myself detained? If I don’t go, does it mean they’re winning? In the end, it was just an instinctive thing. I couldn’t do it.’”

I am a work in progress. As an artist and as a human being, I have always given myself permission to misstep, to fail, to succeed, to live, to learn. Rigidity has always struck me as a destructive trait, and one I have worked to avoid. There is much complexity in this world that makes very little sense to me, and staying open to growth has always seemed to me to be the best shot at evolving. Knowing this about myself is precisely why I recognized that my decision to decline the invitation to sing in Moscow was perhaps not the correct one. Or, perhaps it was? That is not for me to determine, and I will never know if it was the “right” decision. But it is what I felt compelled to do at that time, and so I acted.

However, as I explored with Mr. Ross ~ if I’m for equality across the board and refuse to sing in states or countries that practice discrimination, then, with agonizingly little effort, that approach rules out the vast majority of venues, even though the extremity of intolerance can vary widely. So where do I draw the line? And what about my other passionate viewpoints? In my birth state of Kansas I disagree wildly with the Governor’s lack of support for the Arts and with his disastrous slashing of education - both of which I’ve spoken out about. In Texas, I’m appalled at the curtailment of women’s rights so should I cancel my world premiere there in October? In Missouri, how can I “lend support” to the rampant abuse of African American men by the police force in Ferguson by singing with my hometown Symphony in Kansas City? (Do we want to open up discussion about the morality of using computers and smart phones and wearing mass-produced sneakers?)

My decision not to sing in Russia in that moment was an emotional one. I stand by it fully, for while I’ve always been outspoken in my support for Equal Rights, overnight the LGBTQ community at large immediately knew that I was standing with them, and that support resounded across the globe. that is not to be overlooked. However, even as I spoke out publicly, as noted in my blog entry, I was questioning if it was the right decision. Would it not have had more impact to appear in Moscow - as an avid LGBTQ advocate - and sing anyway?

So where do I stand today? I have an even deeper desire for Equality than in September of 2013 - for ALL. I recognize the power of Art and Music to be a conduit to empathy, understanding and global connection, as well as carrying an immense power to heal. I choose to actively use my voice to support causes that I feel deeply about (see the Stonewall Video, e.g.), and to appear on any stage I choose, arriving as a known and outspoken advocate for Equality and Arts Education. (I also do not underestimate the immense power of waving a feminist flag, voiced by Monteverdi as Octavia, as I sang from the stage of the Royal Opera House in Oman, “Disprezzata Regina.”)

Now back to your headline: I would like to share with you some of the comments I received from from a some of the beautiful people who came out to hear me sing in Oman and Asia:

“Thank you for your support of LGBTQ rights! It means the world to us.” ~ Fan in Singapore

“You will never know how much we appreciate your support of us.” ~ Young man in Oman

“I cannot believe you came to sing for us here ~ we love you and thank you for standing with us.” ~ Young (lesbian) girl in Shanghai

“Tonight was my first night out of the house in 4 months, and you healed me more than many months of therapy have.” ~ Woman in Hong Kong

“Without music I don’t think I would be here today. Thank you for all you do for us.” ~ Fan letter

“Music is the only thing that makes sense in my life. Thank you.” ~ Fan letter

“You can’t imagine how much it means to me to know that someone like you supports someone like me.” ~ Fan letter

“Today is the last day of my 7th year!” ~ Birthday boy in Beijing (who I then serenaded with “Happy Birthday”)

Granted, these statements aren’t bringing about a Middle East Peace Treaty, but they show how the world - to each of these people - is radically changed because of an encounter with music. Indeed, the world is then changed.

LGBTQ youth in these countries know who I am, what I stand for, and that I stand with them. It is a deliberate choice that I go there to sing for them and celebrate the joy of music with them. They know that I hear them, see them, stand with them, and celebrate them. At this moment, I think my appearance as an advocate for Equality, and as a singer who celebrates the joy, beauty, and profound, healing qualities of music carries far more power than staying away and simply denouncing policy. As I’ve realized, I would then bear an obligation to boycott nearly every venue in the world.

After all, perhaps you are right about my desire for mass exposure, because if I can reach more people in this life-altering and positive way, why wouldn’t I seek that out?

I hope that harsh criticism launched at artists who are truly searching for effective, positive ways to make a difference will not keep others from taking the risk to speak out as they feel compelled. That would truly be a travesty.

Sincerely,
Joyce DiDonato
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Sunday, June 07, 2015

In praise of music it is worth hearing now and then


Today's binary culture forces everything - including art - into the dualistic framework of 0 or 1, good or bad. A classical work is either a masterpieces or an also ran, and as a result audiences are denied permission to like unfamiliar music. In the bibliography of Be Here Now Ram Dass uses the less exclusive taxonomy of books to hang out with, books to visit now and then, and books its useful to have met. Every composer anniversary cloud has a silver lining, and the Scriabin centenary brings Decca's laudable budget priced Scriabin: The Complete Works. Among the 18 CDs there is music it is useful to have met such as Alexander Nemtin's contentious realisation of the monumental Preparation for the Final Mystery - described by the composer's biographer Faubion Bowers as a “cataclysmic opus to end the world and its present race of men". Then there is music to visit now and then such as the three symphonies, which include the overexposed Poem of Ecstasy. And then there is music to hang out with, notably the solo piano works. Surely the key to both reaching new audiences and consolidating the all-important existing audience is restoring the balance between music that it is comfortable to hang out with, and music it is worth hearing now and then.

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