Friday, October 30, 2015

There are no quick wins

Too many people look for shortcuts in life. My hope is that youngsters coming to classical music realise it is a long journey which needs patience and serenity.
That wisdom comes from sarod master Amjad Ali Khan, and it is quoted in the notes for the CD of his Wigmore Hall recital. Earlier this year the director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden told the Association of British Orchestra's annual conference that "the creation of snackable access to classical content is the key to audience engagement". Sadly, Amjad Ali Khan is not a speaker at the 2016 ABO conference.

No review samples involved 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.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Contemporary Greek music loses its baggage


Contemporary Greece is carrying some serious baggage. It has gained notoriety as the entry point into Europe for refugees fleeing sectarian conflict in the Middle East, its economy is portrayed as a hopeless basket case and its music is seen to be forever locked in Zorba's groove. This negative image is very unfair, and it is doubly unfair because there are some very exciting and original things happening in Greece, particularly on the island of Crete. One of those exciting things is the feisty young lyra player Kelly Thoma, who is seen above with her hopefully airline approved cabin baggage.

Equidistant from mainland Europe, Africa, and Asia, Crete historically has formed a bridge between the cultures of those three continents. As the Emirate of Crete it was ruled by Iberian Muslims for a century (c820-961CE), and was then part of the Christian world for seven centuries (961-1669CE), first under the Catholic Venetians and then as part of Orthodox Byzantium. Crete returned to Muslim rule as part of the Ottoman Empire for two centuries, and only became part of Greece in 1913. During Turkish rule Sunni Islam was the established religion. However, like the rest of the southern Balkans, Islam in Crete under Ottoman rule was deeply influenced by the Bektashi Sufi order, and this influence is reflected both in a tradition of inter-religious tolerance, and in the performing arts of Crete. (The little-understood common ground between the Orthodox Church and Sufism, particularly the similarities between the mystical Hesychast tradition of the Eastern churches and Sufi practices, is explored in the anthology Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East.)

This rich cultural mix finds expression in surprising ways: in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco Nikos Kazantzakis - creator of that Hellenic stereotype par excellence Zorba - describes how his father's bloodline contained Arab as well as Cretan blood. He goes on to describe how: "My heart bounds with joy whenever I encounter a date tree. You would think it were returning to its homeland, to the arid dust-filled Bedouin village whose one precious ornament is the date tree". In Vienna in 1922 Kazantzakis studied Buddhist scriptures and began a play dramatising the Buddha's life, and writing in Report to Greco Kazantzakis describes how: "of all the people the earth has begotten, Buddha stands resplendently at the summit, an absolutely pure spirit". The wisdom traditions of the East extended beyond Nikos Kazantzakis, and in The Strong Wind from the East Markos Madias describes how Hinduism and Buddhism - particularly Zen - influenced prominent Greek intellectuals of the twentieth century including Nobel Laureate Giorgis Seferis.



This syncretic mix is also prominent in contemporary Cretan music thanks to Ross Daly's visionary work. That is Ross Daly in the photo above: he settled in the Cretan village of Houdetsi in 1974 and established the Labyrinth Music Workshop, an initiative dedicated to studying the world’s modal traditions. His instrument of choice is the Cretan lyre; however he is an animateur and teacher rather than celebrity soloist. The Cretan lyra is not related to the harp-like Greek lyre of mythology, but is in its traditional form a three-stringed bowed instrument related to ancient Eastern bowed instruments including the rebab played by Jordi Savall on legendary recordings including Orient-Occident - see photo below.


Ross Daly is usually described as an 'Irishman', probably because of his penchant for slipping Irish reels into Cretan dances. However, although he has Irish blood, he was in fact born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk; a town with strong connections to folk music via Ralph Vaughan Williams. As a youngster he travelled widely with his peripatetic family, and in San Francisco he first encountered the non-Western musical traditions that were to change his life. He has declared that: "Nationalism in music doesn’t make sense, especially in the region where I live", and he views world music as “an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”. Over the years Ross Daly has worked and recorded contemporary modal music with many talented young musicians, among them are members of the legendary Chemirani family of Iranian percussionists.

A mode is different from the more familiar Western scale: a scale is a set of notes of equal value ordered by pitch, while a mode is a defined melodic pattern with uneven emphasis placed on the various notes within the pattern. Béla Bartók used polymodality derived from Balkan folk music in works such as Mikrokosmos, and under Ross Daly's tutelage a contemporary modal music movement has emerged. Its phrase-orientated non-harmonic music is often based on non-tempered intervals, and it embraces the modal traditions of both European and Eastern countries such as India, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. However this new modal music takes a dynamic and evolving view, and makes no attempt to preserve historic conventions, instead preferring to challenge and remould them. As part of this evolutionary process Ross Daly has developed with his pupil Stelios Petrakis a contemporary version of the Cretan lyra that adds eighteen sympathetic (resonating) strings to the three bowed strings, thereby strengthening the instrument's traditional sound using nature's very own amplification.



Labyrinth alumni Stelios Petrakis is not only a respected luthier, he is also a virtuoso lyra player who has made a number of acclaimed recordings. Above is the CD Kismet that he made in 2004 with Bijan Chemirani. They followed this bestselling CD with Orion in 2008; both albums cross cultural and musical boundaries and their diverse instrumentation includes the ney, the reed flute that provides the signature sound for Turkish Sufi samā. (Samples via these links: Kismet & Orion) The Labyrinth musicians make guest appearances on each others recordings, and Kismet includes a contribution from Ross Daly. A recent development has been the formation of the Stelios Petrakis Quartet, which is, unusually, an all string ensemble - lyra, bass lyra, lute/mandolin, and laouto (Greek version of oud). The Quartet also incorporates dance into performances: their recommended new CD Avgi includes a DVD filmed at a concert in Heraklion - sample via this link. That video shows how the new wave of Cretan music carries the same life affirming message that is found in the symphonies of Nielsen, Martinů. and Dvořák, and in the philosophy of Kazantzakis' Zorba - “Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all … is not to have one”.

Stelios Petrakis has many strings to his lyra bow. He also owns a small villa complex at Mohlos in the east of Crete; this comprises a recording studio that has been used for a number of the CDs featured in this post, and three luxury villas. When the villas are not occupied by musicians recording in the studio they are available for rental; the villa package includes a PC with a library of music, and guests can make their own recordings for a concessionary fee.



The most extreme exponent of contemporary modal music is the lyra player Kelly Thoma. Born in Piraeus on mainland Greece in 1978, she studied English literature at Athens University and dance at the Rallou Manou School. In 1995 she started studying the lyre with Ross Daly and became an integral part of the Labyrinth ensemble three years later playing a Stelios Petrakis crafted lyra. She has worked across a range of genres, including a substantial guest contribution together with Ross Daly to the recommended Mediterraneum CD from early music group Ensemble Oni Wytars. Today Kelly Thoma is establishing herself outside Labyrinth, but she continues to work with Ross Daly, who is now her partner in both her musical and non-musical life - see footer photo. Her first recording without Labyrinth was Anamkhara made in 2009. Anamkhara is an Irish Gaelic language meaning "Friend of the soul", and she worked with Turkish, Iranian and Spanish musicians on the album as well as Ross Daly. (Sample via this link)


With her second solo album Kelly Thoma distances herself even further from the world of Zorba's Dance. 7Fish is a suite of seven pieces inspired by different Mediterranean fish, plus a final meditation on the magical movements of fish enigmatically titled “S”. Kelly Thoma's lyra moves effortlessly from the dark and brooding to the upbeat and exuberant; her extraordinary virtuosity on the lyre is complemented by a stellar line up of eleven musicians including, inevitably, Ross Daly. (Sample 7Fish via this link - if you only buy one CD after reading this article buy 7Fish.) Contemporary global music expands its reach even further in another of Kelly Thoma's projects. Since 2008 she has been a member of the Norway based Tokso Folk Quartet in which her three colleagues play cello, Hardanger fiddle and nyckelharpa - tokso means 'bow' in Greek. The Quartet have released two albums, the latest titled Cor Amant can be sampled via this link.


It is almost certain that the new wave of musicians featured in this article will be unknown to readers*, with the possible exception of Ross Daly. CDs of the new modal music are difficult to find outside Greece** and touring schedules rarely take its exponents beyond their homeland. Which, given the abundance of talent and innovation among these young musicians, is sad but hardly surprising. As Ross Daly explains, world music has become just another market opportunity dictated by fashion, and for too long the world music of sub-Saharan Africa has been in fashion. Another reason why contemporary modal music remains in the commercial wilderness is that, in true Cretan style, it refuses to conform the convenient marketing pigeonholes of world, folk, jazz and art music. Instead it stays true to the non-conformist spirit of Crete's most famous son Nikos Kazantzakis. When The Last Temptation of Christ was published in 1951 the Catholic Church placed it on the index of forbidden books and forbade translations. Kazantzakis was subsequently excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church for heresy, and he was denied burial in a Christian cemetery. The final line of the epitaph on his grave outside the walls of Heraklion also applies to the new music of Crete - 'I am free'.


* There is a new release titled 'The Art of the Lyra' by Stelios Petrakis and Cretan friends on Radio France's Ocora label that is widely available in Europe. This however focuses on the traditional Cretan style, so is not representative of the new wave of modal music.
** Many of the CDs mentioned in this article are available from the Greek Music Shop in Agios Nikolaos. This has an excellent secure English online ordering facility, and my purchases from the store have arrived faster than those ordered from Amazon's UK warehouse. The owner Panos is exceedingly helpful and knowledgable, and as his wife is English there are no language problems.
No freebies or payment received in connection with this post. Header Kelly Thoma photo copyright attributed to Giannis Karnikis - Narcisco Corp. Ross Daly photo via Cyprus Mail. Jordi Savall photo credit David Ignaszewski. Ross & Kelly image from World Music Central. Any other 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.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Do musicians play music, or does music play musicians?

Imagine that you are playing a major scale on a piano or a sitar. In that moment of intertwinement with the scale, we really seem to be playing a scale, we really seem to be melodiously experiencing an aspect of it, but the mystic point of view is that the scale is playing the musician; that that particular probability, that particular existential set is simply releasing an infinitesimally small potential in a manifested form.
Do musicians play music, or does music play musicians? At yesterday's concert* in Cambridge by Ken Zuckerman (sarod) and Sanju Sahai (tabla) - see photo above - the music was most definitely playing the musicians. My proposition is that most musicians play music; but in the case of a few truly great musicians - and only when the planets are auspiciously aligned as they were yesterday - the music plays the musician. Moreover, I would argue that the cult of the celebrity means that classical musicians who impose their ego on the music are, quite wrongly, prized more than those who simply serve the music.

The quote comes from Fazal Inayat Khan. He was the grandson of Sufi master musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan who has featured here many times, and a biographer describes Fazal Inayat Khan as:

A mystic, poet, psychotherapist and publisher, he was a magnetic and controversial genius who provoked both lasting affection and deep antipathy, sometimes simultaneously... Perhaps nothing exemplified this more than the motorcycle adventures he led in India. These were weeks long, open ended journeys throughout the subcontinent where the ostensible destination (say an ashram in Madras) was just the placeholder for the true destination — the self.
In exactly the same way, musicians are just placeholders for the true destination, the music. Releasing the potential of the music requires the generation of a little-understood but crucially important set of probabilities, in which egotism, hype, rabid self-promotion and the other default settings of celebrity culture play no part. Only when the essential conditions are met does the music play the musicians. As happened in Cambridge last night with Ken Zuckerman and Sanju Sahai.

* Concert was promoted by Cambridge University Indian Classical Arts Society. Photo is (c) Peter Nixon 2015. 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.

Why opera tickets are perceived as expensive


Don Pasquale; Glyndebourne Touring Opera at Theatre Royal, Norwich - £8 to £53

Don Pasquale; same Glyndebourne Touring Opera production via Guardian live stream - Free

Don Pasquale; Metropolitan Opera New York stream - Free trial then $4.99 rental

Don Pasquale: Wiener Staarsoper stream - Free trial then €14 rental

The conclusion that opera tickets are not expensive when compared with other live events may well be correct. Cognoscenti know that live opera can never match recorded recorded opera. But opera's new audience does not know this, and neophytes perceive streamed music as a viable alternative to live performances. All the major opera companies fuel this misapprehension by heavily promoting streaming. So, given the significant differential in price between streamed services and opera tickets, it is hardly surprising that new audiences view opera tickets as expensive.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

The madness of crowds


Sirventès was the poetic art that evolved in the País d'Òc region of France in the thirteenth century to protest against the violence of the times, the stupidity of powerful people and the decline of ethics. In an early expression of the madness of crowds, the Catholic Church had mounted the Albigensian Crusade against Cathars in Occitania, and in 1209, 20,000 inhabitants of Béziers were massacred by Crusaders on the pretext that the town harboured 230 Cathar heretics. The art of the troubadors from Occitania is much celebrated, but the dissent of Sirventès - which is an offshoot from the troubadors - is almost unknown. So an eponymous new CD from the maverick Accords Croisés label showcasing the art of Sirventès is particularly welcome.

The troubadors mixed fealty to the established Catholic Church with influences from the Moorish culture of Spain, and in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry Robert Graves suggests that the troubadours' real debt was to Sufism. The influence of mystical Islam is reflected in Sirventès by the use of oud (Gregory Dargent) and percussion (Youssef Hbeisch) accompanying Manu Theron singing in the Occitan language. This is the real appeal of this new CD: the lyrics are historically correct, but the music is deliciously incorrect as it ranges from traditional influences to Middle Eastern rhythms (percussionist Youssef Hbeisch works with the famous Palestinian Trio Joubran), and contemporary styles including jazz - sample via this link.

Eight centuries after the art of Sirventès flourished, the violence of the times, the stupidity of powerful people, and the decline of ethics remain preoccupations. My recent reading has included The Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans. This chronicles how the author left his research post at the prestigious Bristol Robotics Laboratory to found a community in the Scottish Highlands to explore survival in a post-global society without modern technology. In the book Dylan Evans describes the disillusionment that sparked his (spectacularly unsuccessful) utopian experiment in words that apply as much to social media as they do to robotics:
A lot of our research [at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory] focused on something known as 'swarm intelligence'. This involved taking a lot of very simple robots and programming them to work as a team. The idea was that, even though each robot was quite stupid on its own, a kind of collective intelligence - a hive mind - would emerge when they worked together to achieve a common goal. Human societies, it struck me, were just the opposite. Individually, people are very intelligent creatures. But in society a kind of collective stupidity seems to emerge spontaneously. The Scottish journalist Charles Mackay famously called it 'the madness of crowds in an 1841 book that chronicled such follies as economic bubbles, the Crusades and witch hunts. 'Men,' he wrote, 'go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.'
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Friday, October 23, 2015

Do you believe in magic?


Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.
Those wise words come from Tom Robbins, and the video showcases the CD Jaadu (Hindustani and Persian for magic) from Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and gypsy-influenced French guitarist Titi Robin. Jaadu is one of the magical albums that have over the years strengthened my disbelief in government and business.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

When the hype is justified


In yesterday's post I mused on how the title of 'musician who first brought Indian music to the West' is rather (raga?) meaningless; but if it is to be awarded, it should go to the sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, who, at Ravi Shankar's recommendation, visited America in 1955 - a year before Shankar's first visit. My reading today reminded me that there is another strong claimant to the title, the sitar master Ustad Vilayat Khan. He gave a recital in London's Royal Festival Hall in 1951; however somewhat surprisingly he did not visit America until 1978, although his reputation preceded him on disc. Indian music cognoscenti are divided in their view as to whether Ravi Shankar or Ustad Vilayat Khan was the greatest sitar player, in the same way as classical music cognoscenti are split between Toscanini and Furtwängler. But I follow the wise path of a young St. Thérèse of Lisieux; who when offered a handful of ribbons to choose from declared: 'I choose all'. As a reminder that the hype is sometimes justified, sample Ustad Vilayat Khan's art via the YouTube video from which the header screengrab was taken.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

When the hype hits the fan


The recent downgrading of Valery Gergiev's reputation to music's equivalent of junk bond status by a prominent critic - performances of "often ...featureless mediocrity" - shows the dangers of classical music's guru fixation. In 2012 Newsweek declared that Gustavo Dudamel was "the saviour of classical music". To date the saviour from Venezuela has not been crucified by the critics; but it is now generally acknowledged that, like many celebrity musicians, he is a a mere mortal with a wooden baton and a golden wallet.

As one guru falls from favour, the commercial-musical complex of agents, media companies and embedded journalists ensures that a liberally hyped newcomer - the younger the better - is ready to take their place. The irony is that Valery Gergiev and Gustavo Dudamel and their over-hyped colleagues are all huge talents. Yes, they have doubtless aided and abetted their own elevation to exalted status. But the real blame lies with the commercially-driven guru fixation, which builds expectations that never have a chance of being met. Not only does this dangerous fixation divert attention and much needed resources away from the long tail of musicians on the wrong side of the celebrity divide, but it also triggers the boom and bust career cycle of so many celebrity musicians. This boom and bust cycle is vividly illustrated by Simon Rattle. He was acclaimed as the guru that would revitalise the Berlin Philharmonic. But despite some fine achievements, he is leaving Berlin on an equivocal note, having disappointed those who were awaiting Herbert von Karajan's second coming. Now, the very critics and London Symphony Orchestra musicians who said good riddance to Gergiev, are hailing Rattle as the new saviour of the LSO, and are even building him a concert hall. Déjà vu anyone?

Today the term guru is commonly used to identify a popular expert - eg. management guru - and the term is used in that context in the preceding paragraphs. But the true definition of a guru is a Hindu spiritual teacher. In India music is considered to be a sacred art, and the term guru is used in its correct context when a pupil refers to his music teacher as his guruji. However the common usage definition of popular expert, and the technical definition of Hindu spiritual teacher have become confused even in the case of Indian musicians, with the example of Ravi Shankar providing an informative case study.



It is beyond dispute that Pandit Shankar was a musician and spiritual teacher of the highest order. But had he stayed in India it is doubtful if his name would be known at all to Western audiences. However, he first toured outside India in 1956, went on to work with George Harrison, Philip Glass, and other celebrated Western musicians, and became known as the guru - popular expert - who brought Indian music and the sitar to the West. Which means that today, three years after his death, in many Western eyes Ravi Shankar is Indian music, and similarly, the sitar is Indian music. The Shankar problem is illustrated by the graphic above. It is a blurred screen grab from the video of the 1993 Concert for Peace in the Royal Albert Hall, London presented by the Rajiv Gandi Foundation. For me the double CD of this concert on Moment Records is one of the greatest recordings ever made. But I rejected taking the easy route and showing the CD artwork; because both the front and back artwork only show Ravi Shankar. The concert and the recording - in excellent sound incidentally - were both triumphs. But not just for Ravi Shankar: because tabla player Zakir Hussain (back to camera) and sarod player Partho Sarathy (facing camera) also gave triumphant performances. Yet it was difficult to grab even that shaky image, because the Asia TV video feed concentrates almost exclusively on Pandit Shankar; with only the occasional cutaway allowing glimpses of Zakir Hussain - who gave the performance of his life - and Partho Sarathy.

For the Concert for Peace the sarod was played by the young Partho Sarathy; however Ali Akbar Khan was the sarod player best-known for working with Ravi Shankar. The title of 'musician who first brought Indian music to the West' is fairly meaningless; but if it is to be awarded, it should go to Ali Akbar Khan. At Ravi Shankar's recommendation, Ali Akbar Khan visited America in 1955 - a year before Shankar's first visit - with tabla player Chatur Lal; they became the first Indian musicians to play on American TV, and recorded a pioneering album for Angel Records. Ali Akbar Khan was also an influential teacher; in 1956 he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, this was followed in 1967 by another college of the same name in Berkeley, California (later San Rafael), and in 1985 by the Ali Akbar College of Music in Basel, Switzerland.



The Basel college was founded under the direction of Ali Akbar Khan's American pupil Ken Zuckerman, who is seen above. Born in New Jersey 1952, Ken Zuckerman is now one of the world's finest sarod players. I first saw him play in Jordi Savall's Francisco Xavier project at the Cite de la Musique, Paris in 2009, where his improvised raga on the plainchant O Gloriosa Domina with tabla player Prabhu Edouart was the highlight of the concert, and over the years Ken Zuckerman has made several appearances On An Overgrown Path.

In the West, Indian music remains inextricably linked with Ravi Shankar and the sitar. Which means, quite wrongly, that world class - and I use that description advisedly - musicians such as sarod master Ken Zuckerman remain almost unknown. I have written here before in praise of the Cambridge University Indian Classical Arts Society (CUICAS). This student run society is bringing Ken Zuckerman to Cambridge on Sunday for a recital with tabla player Sanju Sahai. The recital is being billed as a New Horizons event, in recognition of the need to broaden Western audience's appreciation of Indian music beyond its current narrow guru fixation. I have no professional connection with CUICAS, and, in view of the thrust of this post, I don't want to over-hype the concert. But CUICAS has taken a big financial gamble bringing Ken Zuckerman to Cambridge, and they need all the support they can get. Ken Zuckerman and Sanju Sahai start their concert at 5.00pm this Sunday, October 25th in Cripps Court Auditorium, Magdalene College. Tickets, which are eminently affordable at £15, can be bought from the ADC Theatre website, or by phone 01223300085. If you are in the Cambridge region I do hope to see you at the concert on Sunday.

No complimentary tickets or other benefits involved in this post. Header image credit Rex Features; Concert for Peace from YouTube video, Ken Zuckerman via InstaEvents. 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, October 19, 2015

The name of the game is Sir Simon says


Mark Boleat, the City of London Corporation’s policy and resources chairman has told Architect's Journal that siting the new London concert hall advocated by Sir Simon Rattle on the Museum of London site "is feasible". As was pointed out here in September, the Museum of London site is one quarter of a mile from the Barbican Hall. Mark Boleat sits on the City of London Property Investment Board together with Michael Cassidy CBE. Simon Rattle is designate music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. My earlier post noted that Michael Cassidy is also non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt - the agency that manages Simon Rattle and represents the LSO - and that Mr Cassidy has previously held the positions of chairman of the Museum of London [2005-2013], chairman Barbican Arts Centre [2000-2003], and is a past planning chairman of the Corporation of London. He is also a member of the City of London Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where has all the idealism gone?

The point of this story is this: why (when there are people prepared to do almost anything for a recording contract or a Queen Elizabeth Hall date) are we releasing this new Nick Drake album, and (if he wants to make another one) - the next? Because, quite simply we believe that Nick is a great talent. His first two albums haven't sold a shit. But, if we carry on releasing them, then maybe one day someone authoritative will stop, listen properly and agree with us. Then maybe a lot more people will get to hear Nick Drake's incredible songs and guitar playing. And maybe they'll buy a lot of his albums, and fulfill our faith in Nick's promise. Then. Then we'll have done our job.
That is how Dave Sandison, the press officer for Island Records, signed off the Melody Maker release advertisement for Nick Drake's Pink Moon album in February 1971. Sadly, there were no more Nick Drake albums; but two decades after Nick's tragically early death in 1974 his record label's idealistic faith in his promise was rewarded. Now, in age where social media approval, chart position and sales are all that matter, idealism has all but disappeared. Can you imagine Max Hole tweeting it is cool that that two of Deutsche Grammophon's contemporary music albums haven't sold a shit? However, thankfully, idealism does live on in a few small record labels. One example is the French independent Accords Croisés; I buy all their releases sight unseen; because they unlock valuable discoveries in the way that the corporate labels, radio and social media should, but no longer do.


Particularly noteworthy is the new Accords Croisés CD seen above. Henri Tournier is a classically trained flautist who has embraced Eastern versions of the flute, particularly the bansuri, the transverse bamboo flute that is a distinctive feature of Indian music. On his new album Souffles du Monde (Breath of the World) he is joined by no less than ten outstanding vocalists from around the world - six of them women incidentally. Each track is an improvised dialogue between flute and vocalist in which each soloist is an equal partner. The soloists include Dominique Vellard (France), Dorsaf Hamdani (Tunisia), Alireza Ghorbani (Iran), Abida Parveen (Pakistan), Ustad Farida Mahwash (Afghanistan), and Etsuko Chida (Japan). On an album of such richness and diversity it is invidious to highlight individual artists. But I will: Enkhjargal Dandarvaanchig's Mongolian throat and overtone singing is a revelation, while the idealism of Henri Tournier and Accords Croisés in putting this prodigously rewarding project together also deserves the highest praise. I suspect that, to use Dave Sandison words, Souffles du Monde won't sell a shit. But is that the best measure of artistic merit? Experience Enkhjargal Dandarvaanchig and Henri Tournier's revelatory music-making via this link.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Suicide is painless



Yesterday Norman Lebrecht ran a story on his Slipped Disc blog headlined "Piano teacher is arrested in Florida over ‘sexual’ breastfeeding video". Now that story troubles me greatly; but not for the reasons you may think. It is common knowledge that, to quote a Sunday Times review of one of Lebrecht's books that: "Where others write, he romps, pursuing scandal, sex and ‘shame’ (a favorite word) with the alliterative abandon of a redtop tabloid". So I am not troubled that the post was unashamedly salacious click bait. Nor am I troubled that this recycled titillation was scraped from a Yahoo News item, which in turn had scraped it from an American TV news channel. Nor am I troubled that the two images on the Slipped Disc post were used without copyright attribution*. (Journalists who have received copyright infringement warnings from Lebrecht Photo Library - the self-styled "world's largest resource for music pictures and all the creative arts" - will understand the pertinence of that latter comment).

No, what troubles me is that Norman Lebrecht receives the full support of the classical music industry. He is employed by the largest classical music group Universal Classics via their Sinfini Music website. His programmes appear on BBC Radio 3 and he contributes to Radio 4. He is flowed review discs by all classical labels, and writes for the New Statesman and Wall Street Journal. He is courted by leading musicians who feed him 'exclusives', and is fed the oxygen of exposure by other professional journalists. And he wins an award recognising "the commitment and work of artists and journalists who provided a real contribution to the ever increasing role of music in the culture of entire populations and individuals".

One of Lebrecht's recurring themes is the death of classical music. Readers will know that I have spent much time this summer exploring the edges of the both the live and recorded music network. Discoveries such as George Onslow's String Quartets on disc and lesser-known Armenian composers in concert, make me think that classical music is still in rude health. But then I look at Slipped Disc, and realise that this apparently healthy and vibrant artform is, in fact, committing suicide.

* For the record the sources of the images used on Slipped Disc are 'Police handout' via Yahoo, and piano teacher Leigh Felten's website. My header image is from YouTube video in public domain. 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.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A real artist cannot accept the world the way it is


Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami has observed that "Capturing the slightest emotion of people's lives is always a political act", and the image above is from his celebrated 'Koker trilogy'. If classical music is about anything, it is about capturing emotion. Which means, by Abbas Kiarostami's definition, classical music is a political act. Yet increasingly, in deference to political correctness, music distances itself from politics. But not everywhere. This year is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide in which the proto-Turkish state systematically exterminated the civilian Armenian population of Anatolian Turkey, killing an estimated one million, and displacing hundreds of thousands more. In much of the world the centenary of the Armenian Genocide has been lamentably overlooked. However, France's second city Marseille has a large population of emigrée Armenians, and the centenary is being marked there by a year long programme of events.

During my recent stay in Marseille I attended a concert marking the Armenian Genocide by the outstanding young musicians Jean-Florent Gabriel (cello) and Marie-France Arakelian (piano) in the church of Notre Dame du Monts. Fortunately, excellent recordings of the concert capturing Jean-Florent Gabriel's visceral cello sound resonating in the 19th century church have been made available and appear below. The main works in the programme were cello sonatas by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. But of particular interest were three works by Armenian composers. The Armenian priest, composer, and musicologist Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) is one of the better known Armenian composers, and his lament Krunk opened the programme.




At the centre of the concert was the 'Elegy in Memory of Aram Khatchaturian' by Arno Babajanian. Armenia was part of the USSR until 1991, and, like most Armenian composers, Babajanian studied and worked in Soviet Russia. He was an outstanding pianist who was praised by Shostakovich as "a brilliant piano teacher", and in 1950 he received the Stalin Prize for his Heroic Ballade for piano with orchestra.



Closing the Marseille concert was the Nocturne by Edouard Bagdassarian. Born in Yerevan a year after Arno Babadjanian, Bagdassarian studied in Moscow and had considerable success with both his concert and film scores. His compositions are influenced by Armenian folk music, and Naxos has recorded several of them. Edouard Bagdassarian's Nocturne is performed in this untitled video:



As a fictitious Wagner tells us in Jean-Claude Carrière's libretto for Jonathan Harvey's opera Wagner Dream: "A real artist cannot accept the world the way it is. That's impossible!" Both the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and the music of the composers who lived in the shadow of the Genocide must not be forgotten in a world that now values clickbait more than history.

The concert remembering the Armenian Genocide in Eglise Notre Dame du Mont on Sept 20, 2015 was a free concert. 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.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What price classical music's celebrity culture?

As art forms inspire and cultures come together, Rolex watches are there. For life’s defining moments and the making of maestros. More than time, they tell history.
That copy accompanies a Rolex video featuring Gustavo Dudamel, and the visual comes from a press campaign. On the one hand a leading maestro flaunts his £10,000 Rolex Oyster Datejust, but on the other hand claims of penury have become the mantra of embattled classical music. Financial double-standards prevail; which means it is cool to flaunt wealth but verboten to discuss money in any context other than the lack of it. As a result, in the Guardian critic Andrew Clements concludes somewhat belatedly that Valery Gergiev "has not served the London Symphony Orchestra well as their chief conductor", but focuses solely on Gergiev's musical shortcomings, without even a passing mention of the financial cost of the celebrity conductor's term at the LSO. This fiscal shyness is hardly surprising in a music journalist. Because not only is any detailed information about orchestra finances very hard to come by, but digging down beneath the claims of financial penury risks invoking the disapproval of those that matter to a professional journalist. Which won't stop me trying to provide some fiscal background to what the respected Andrew Clements describes as the "often ...featureless mediocrity" of Gergiev's performances as the LSO's principal conductor.

During Gergiev's eight year tenure as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the orchestra will have received in the region of £16 million Arts Council England funding. Arts Council England (ACE) is an executive non-departmental public body of the UK government's Department for Culture, Media & Sport, and it supports arts and culture using public money from the government and the National Lottery. The LSO has an annual income of £16 million, so the annual ACE grant represents approximately 13% of the orchestra's income. This £2 million annual grant from public funds is material both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the LSO's total income; so there is a case for more transparency as to how it is disbursed. (The two other leading London orchestras receive similar ACE funding, so the argument also applies to them).

This debate is not about whether celebrity conductors are paid too much: it is about transparency. When a minority artform receives millions of pounds in public funding, and then publicly declares that the recipient of a not inconsiderable chunk of that funding has "not served.. well", difficult questions will be asked by classical music's enemies. Those questions become even more difficult when the institutionalised resistance to explaining who is paid what becomes apparent. And all this is exacerbated by the opaque involvement of the classical music agents. What slice of the celebrity's fee goes to these agents is one of the industry's closely guarded secrets. It is around 15%, but the precise amount should not be a secret. Then there is the hot topic of tax liability. The current scandal of Facebook's evasion of UK corporation tax is just part of a much wider concern about legal tax avoidance. Presumably we can safely assume that principal conductors of London based orchestras pay their UK tax dues; but specific information as to where payments are directed would bring reassurance.

More transparency on orchestra finances would bring other benefits. It would provide vital information on the problem of inequality within classical music. One viewpoint is that classical music is inadequately funded; an alternative viewpoint is that the limited funding is distributed unequally. The salary for a rank and file London musician is in the public domain - £26,000 to £37,000 - but the salary of their principal conductor is not. So the vexed question of whether available revenues are equitably distributed remains unanswered. And the problem of inequality does not just apply within orchestras. It would be informative to know how much one celebrity conductor receives compared with the total funding for struggling but essential smaller ensembles.

Arts Council England sets a laudable precedent by disclosing its senior staff salaries. My view is that it should be a requirement that any orchestra or other recipient of public funding via ACE should disclose the amount and destination of its ten largest financial disbursements. Of course the music matters most; but the cost of the music also matters. It is indisputable that the London Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras do magnificent work; not only with their mainstream activities, but also in education and outreach. But if classical music wants to make a credible case for receiving significant amounts of public funding, it needs to be far more transparent as to how that money is spent.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Making settled things strange

Music is about transportation, transcendence, and transformation of matter and consciousness. That's the commodity you're dealing with in music, transforming lead into gold, the great alchemical work. In the hands of certain people that happens from time to time.
That subtly qualified explanation comes from Mickey Hart*, who supplemented his role of drummer for the Grateful Dead with pioneering work in ethnomusicology and producer of seminal World Music albums. In the notes for 'Wagner Transformed' sound alchemist J. Peter Schwalm describes how he uses electronic processing as a tool of de-familiarisation - sample via this link. Before a base metal can be reconstituted as something precious, it must first be transformed from its familiar guise. Today, reinforcing comfort zones with yet more that is familiar is seen as the way forward for classical music, and de-familiarisation is a neglected tool. Yet appreciating great art requires imagination, and as G. K. Chesterton told us: "The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange".

* Quote comes from Peter Lavezzoli's The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples used in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Don't say you were not warned


In October 2008 a paying concertgoer explained here why he would be returning his tickets for Valery Gergiev's London Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Seven years later critic Andrew Clements writing in the Guardian reaches the conclusion that "Valery Gergiev has not served the London Symphony Orchestra well as their chief conductor".

As Virgil Thomson told us: "Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby".

Photo via Telegraph. 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.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What is a celebrity?

'A celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness' - Daniel J. Boorstin
Photo of pianist Lang Lang with special edition Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse “Lang Lang” comes via TopSpeed. 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.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Analogue man


This photo accompanies an interview with Jordi Savall in the Catalan newspaper Ara. Jordi's primary workspace is occupied by books, his PC is tucked away on one side and there is no towering sound system. It reminds me of this passage from The Unlimited Mercifier, Stephen Hertenstein's biography of the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi:
True cultural advance is not related to progress in technology or social organisation, but to an increase in self-knowledge and the freedom to contemplate and celebrate the Divine Beneficence in all its forms.
Thanks to Roger Evans for heads up on the Ara article. Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Does Facebook really have to be this dire?


Social media and its inherent dangers are forensically analysed by Jacob Silverman in Terms of Service. This book should be required reading for all social media users; even for those who already understand how Facebook manipulates news feed and sells their personal data to all and sundry to boost its $523 million profit. It makes for very frightening reading, but the fact remains that there are 1.5 billion Facebook users. Which means social media offers a powerful free (if the cost of losing control of personal data is ignored) communication platform for classical music, an artform that is struggling to widen its reach. So why is classical music's use of Facebook and other social media so dire?

Classical music's Facebook users fall into two categories: those who need to sell themselves and those who don't. Those who don't need to sell themselves conform to the social media convention of circulating stories from the Guardian, BBC and New York Times that everyone has already read, supplemented by photos of their dinner and videos of the cat; while those who do need to sell themselves follow the convention of the hard sell. Let me give one example of that hard sell: John Luther Adams is a composer and visionary who I have great respect for, and I have shared that respect with readers. Because I admire his work, Facebook updates from JLA are - or rather were - among the few I read regularly. But the updates have become a non-stop torrent of publicity for performances of his music interspersed with relentlessly positive reviews; in fact the sell is so remorseless that I will give JLA the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his Facebook account is controlled by an intern at his publisher. However, who writes the updates is not important; what is important is that social media has become commercial media, and in that transition something important has been lost. It is unfair to single out just one fine musician for the sin of using social media for self-promotion, because so many are doing it; with Joyce DiDonato's Twitter feed being one of the most blatant examples. Presumably the intention is that these promotional blitzkreigs should impress. But, speaking for a sample of one, it has the opposite effect on me - I have simply stopped reading them.

Blogs were one of the earliest forms of social media, and the blogosphere was for a short while an idealistic community of ideas. But that was a decade ago, and one of the tragedies of the digital age is that both in the arts and elsewhere, the strong have become stronger, and the weak have become weaker. At a time when classical music struggles both to retain its established audience and to engage with new audiences, a community of ideas would be of immense value. We need to widen artistic horizons; not narrow them by handing social media platforms over to the strong who do not need the exposure. But where on Facebook and Twitter is the coverage from the edge of the network? Where is the excitement about new discoveries? Where is the counterbalance to the hegemony of the corporate music machine? Where is anything being pursued other than 'likes' and 'retweets'? Where is the infallibility of new technology being questioned? Where is the collegiality by which the strong helped the weak grow stronger in the early days. Where are the alternative views? Where is there anything other than self-interest? Where has all the idealism gone?



In 2007 Jonathan Harvey sent me an email in response to my early advocacy of his music on this blog, saying: "I was delighted to find such a passionate advocate of my and other contemporary music forging his own path (not so overgrown!) clearly in opposition to most current trends. I've always felt that it is and will be strong enthusiasm that will change the world!" Call me a hopeless idealist, but I still believe that strong enthusiasm is more powerful than self-promotion. So let me counter the seemingly pessimistic tone of this post by sharing my enthusiasm for some music that has been lamentably ignored on social media..

John Luther Adams was a friend and admirer of the composer Lou Harrison, and he has expressed that admiration in his composition 'For Lou Harrison'. Lou Harrison is celebrated for his syncretic music, and a number of his works reference Indian styles. Six of these have been transcribed by Barry Phillips as the suite 'Jahla Journey' and recorded by the West Coast based Lux Musica Ensemble. These transcriptions are more than opportunism, because Ravi Shankar knew Lou Harrison when they both lived in California.

'Jahla Journey' is on the CD 'Raga & Raj' released on East Meets West Music, the record label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation. As a cellist Barry Phillips has toured with the Anoushka Shankar Project, and on the CD are 'Eight Ragas' composed by him and played by Lux Musica. Barry Phillips had a long association with Ravi Shankar which dated from the George Harrison produced 'Chants of India' released in 1997, and the 'Eight Raga's are very much in the mould of the George Harrison produced 'Shankar Family & Friends' album which dates from the same period. Also on 'Raga & Raj' are transcriptions of four of William Hamilton Bird's 1789 'Hindoostanee Airs'. (These curiosities were written for harpsichord, and a recent CD on Signum of all the Airs far outstays its welcome despite the determined advocacy of the hugely talented Jane Chapman). Concluding 'Raga & Raj' is a moving instrumental transcription by Barry Phillips of the Hindu Bhajan (devotional song) Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram.

Given the celebrity that Ravi Shankar achieved in both the East and West, it is puzzling that the work of East Meets West Music is so far off the social media radar. The label's crowning achievement to date has been the release of Ravi Shankar: The Living Room Sessions, Parts 1 and 2. These Living Room Sessions capture exquisite valedictory performances by the 91 year old sitar master at his home in Encinitas, California; their producer was Barry Phillips, with the first album quite rightly winning a Grammy in 2013, and the second earning a Grammy nomination a year later. But also noteworthy is Ashwini Bhide Deshpande's recording of six vocal ragas by Ravi Shankar on a CD titled 'Arghyam: The Offering'. Although Ravi Shankar converted the West to Indian instrumental music, he did not manage to do the same for the higher art of Indian vocal music. However, the vocal tradition had a significant impact on contemporary Western music as it influenced the minimalist pioneers La Monte Young and Terry Riley. All the releases from East Meets West Music deserve to reach a wide audience. If this post brings a new discovery to just one reader it will have done its job. And if John Luther Adams does not 'unfriend' me, that will be even better.



No review samples were used in this post. Header graphic comes from Facebook page of 'Classical Music Humor'. No specific criticism is intended of this Facebook page, it simply provides a relevant graphic. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A musician supreme

It is interesting to consider what makes music devotional, where the fine line is. The first time I felt very strongly about this was when I went to hear John Coltrane at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. When Coltrane came on stage, you were suddenly involved in a ritual. It wasn't a jazz concert anymore, it was a very powerful transformative experience. You weren't the same person leaving that place as you were when you walked in. To experience that, especially in a jazz club where there was normally drinking and smoking, was extraordinary. There was power in the music that kept the audience from getting noisy or rowdy. That's one example of devotional music happening in an atmosphere that is never considered a place of worship - even though it could be.
That is Terry Riley speaking in an interview with Peter Lavezzoli in The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, which must be one of the most important and most overlooked music books published in recent years. The current newsletter of the Institute of Composing has republished an article by me titled, quite appropriately, 'What classical music can learn from John Coltrane'.

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.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Many dangers hedge around the unfortunate composer


The red phone box seen above has been turned into a "virtual reality concert hall" at Snape Maltings, the concert venue created by Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears. Aldeburgh Music has equipped the phone box with a headset - see below - showing a viewer-controlled video of a performance in the Maltings. Aldeburgh Music's digital manager Matt Jolly explains that the project aims to provide "a fun and immersive introduction" to the concert hall. Yes, classical music does need to experiment,and the good news is that the audio/video programme is a performance of Frank Bridge's The Sea - the impressive 360 degree 'virtual reality' video can be watched via this link. But I suggest that the following quote from Britten's 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech is prominently displayed in the digital phone box:
There are many dangers which hedge around the unfortunate composer: pressure groups which demand true proletarian music, snobs who demand the latest avant-garde tricks ... He may find himself writing more and more for machines, in conditions dictated by machines, and not for humanity: or of course he may end by creating grandiose clap-trap when his real talent is for dance tunes or children's piano pieces.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photos via Aldeburgh Music. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, October 04, 2015

How not to stand out


Currently riding high in the non-fiction charts is How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed by psychologist, motovational speaker and TV talking head Rob Yeung, a book that has been acclaimed as the definitive guide on how to sell yourself. As the blurb for the book tells us: "we all need to sell ourselves", and this explains why today Klout scores are more important than CVs and success is measured by Facebook 'likes', and why some music journalists never let the facts get in the way of a good tweet. But the insidious need to stand out in music and elsewhere is nothing new, as the story of George Onslow tells us.

George Onslow was born in 1784 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. His father was a wealthy English landowner, and his mother came from a distinguished French family. He showed considerable musical gifts as a child; he first studied piano where he was exposed to the great German keyboard tradition, and then took up the cello as a student in Paris. He started composing in his early twenties, and from 1808 until his death in 1853 Onslow divided his time between his country estates in the Auvergne and Paris; while in Paris he participated in the music season and his music was played in influential salons.He was a prodigious composer and his output included thirty-six string quartets, thirty-four string quintets, ten piano trios, four operas, and four symphonies. During Onslow's lifetime his compositions were acclaimed in Germany and played alongside the Viennese classics, and he was spoken of as "the French Beethoven". But following his death his music quickly fell out of both fashion and favour as a new generation of French composers - Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Franck etc - rose to prominence. The taste-making critics of the nineteenth century - the equivalent of today's digital commentariat - gave Onslow a critical mauling following his death, and the music of 'the German Beethoven' remained unpublished and unplayed until very recently.

In a perceptive essay the French musicologist and Onslow biographer Viviane Niaux has explained why the composer's career followed a boom and bust trajectory. George Onslow clearly hadn't read How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed, because he remained based in provincial Clermont-Ferrand rather moving to fashionable Paris, his aristocratic status challenged the French virtues of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and his Viennese-influenced compositions swum against the tide of emerging French musical nationalism. So, just as still happens today, the merit of Onslow's music was outweighed many times over by non-musical factors. Or, in other words, you don't just need to be a fine musician, you must also know how to sell yourself.

Viviane Niaux's essay is published in the documentation for the first in an outstanding series of recordings of George Onslow's string quartets made by Quatuor Ruggieri. This young and immensely alented quartet is an offshoot from Les Talens Lyriques founded by Christophe Rousset. In an interview discussing the differences between Western and Eastern music, Zubin Mehta explained how in classical music - especially the Viennese school - the bass line is extremely important, because in the Western tradition - unlike in the East - the music is written vertically. As a cellist Onslow wrote superbly for the lower registers, and his skill is emphasised by the Quatuor Ruggieri's use of gut strings - audio sample via this link, video via this link. (The overlooked importance of the bass line is relevant to previous discussions of should classical music turn up the bass, of how 'standard' hall acoustics need to be rethought, of the preference for headphone listening, and - most importantly - the changing sonic expectations of new audiences).

The Quatuor Ruggieri's interpretations of George Onslow's Quartets are being issued by the small and independent French Agogique label. (Two discs are currently available). You only need to listen for a few minutes to appreciate that Onslow's music is scandalously neglected; in addition the performaces are superb, the discs are beautifully presented with excellent documentation, and the sound - particularly in Quartets op. 8 no 1 & 3 and op. 10 no 3 recorded in the Church of Sainte-Pierre, rue Manin, Paris - is demonstration quality. It is quite ridiculous that musicians are judged by their ability to sell themselves rather than their ability to make music. Not only is George Onslow neglected, but I have not seen a single mention of the outstanding advocacy of his music by the Quatuor Ruggieri in the copious online outpourings of the corporate-centric digital commentariat. As has been pointed out here before, classical music's big opportunity is to expand the appetite of its current audience. So, to misquote Carl Nielsen, give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for those who know how to sell themselves.

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.