Sunday, February 28, 2016

Who's afraid of the big bad wordsmith?


Kudos to Tommy Pearson and Simon Toyne for speaking out against Norman Lebrecht's irresponsible publication of the candidate shortlist for the directorship of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Following an outcry this Slipped Disc 'exclusive' was subsequently deleted without explanation, and without public apology to the candidates whose careers may have been compromised by this audience-whoring indiscretion. I am now waiting for reaction to Lebrecht's impropriety from the industry PR executives and other attention seekers who feed him with the oxygen of exclusives, and the reaction of his erstwhile employer the BBC. I also await comment from his colleagues in the UK music bloggers' mutual admiration society, and from the rest of the classical music establishment. But I am not holding my breath.


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Monday, February 22, 2016

Where have all the varieties of musical experience gone?


Much of my recent listening has been devoted to the 17 CD anthology The Music of Islam. It is a measure of the ideological traps surrounding art music that my opening sentence and header graphic will have sent many readers clicking off to safer ground. And the danger of those ideological traps is highlighted by the sad fact that this post would have reached a far wider audience had it been devoted to one of the more fashionable causes currently preoccupying music's champagne activists. But for those readers that remain, I would point out that in an interview Alex Ross explained how he kept William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience on his desk for philosophical guidance, because the book "shows the way out of ideological traps and abysses". And it is surely no coincidence that at this desk Alex wrote The Rest is Noise, the seminal guide to avoiding the traps associated with the appreciation of 20th century art music.

William James' was a leading proponent of pragmatism; but he also recognised the importance of experiences beyond those that can be rationally explained by what he described as " logic-chopping rationalistic talk". Not only did James acknowledge the power of mysticism, but he described mystical experiences as the “root and center” of religious experience which provide "states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect". In a bold rejection of spiritual authority - The Varieties of Religious Experience was published in 1902 - William James placed little importance on established theological doctrine, and viewed organised religion as a “contamination” of what should be a personal experience of the ineffable.

Because music is viewed as a contamination by fundamentalist Islam, much of the Music of Islam is devoted to the faith's mystical fringes. Practices on these fringes resonate with William James' view that the most important experiences are those that cannot be explained, and that the personal transcends the established. The recordings were curated by producer David Parsons in the 1990s for his Celestial Harmonies label, and range from Morocco to Indonesia. With its mix of studio and field recordings - the Bedouin nomads of the South Sinai recorded under a full moon in a desert wadi is just one highlight - the anthology sits alongside the ethnomusiclogical achievements of Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, Paul Bowles, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Music of Islam is a triumph, both as an ethnomusicological document and - to quote Alan Watts on John Cage's work - as a " project for cleaning the ears of the musically educated public". As Western classical violinist turned Sufi musician Ali Keeler recently pointed out: "It would be good for Western classical music to connect with other living traditional forms of music". All these living traditions share the root of musical truth, and listening to the Music of Islam reminded me of how this musical truth spread from the heartlands of Islam into Europe via Moorish Spain, and on through the art of the troubadors to fuse with other traditions and become Western classical music. Just as there are varieties of religious experience, so there are varieties of musical experience. In our media moderated monocultural age this teaching of master musician and Sufi sage Hazrat Inayat Khan rings so true:

The weakness of man has always been that he only considers as truth that to which he is accustomed, and anything he has not been accustomed to hear or to think frightens him. Like a person in a strange land, away from home, the soul is a stranger to the nature of things it is not accustomed to. But the journey towards perfection* means rising above limitations, rising so high that not the horizon of one country or of one continent only is seen, but that of the wole world. The higher we rise, the wider becomes the horizon of our view.
* 'Perfection' in this context means the Sufi goal of unity with the Divine, rather than eradicating all human frailties. 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.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

We're black the other eleven months of the year as well



On Feb 20th Kirk Smith conducts the Houston Symphony in a Black History Month concert celebrating the African American contribution to music. Which is good news. But, as John McLaughlin Williams comments in an email: "Kirk Smith is to be congratulated on helming a concert with a major American symphony this month. But the only thing detracting from this is that it is a Black History Month concert. I hate it when they trot us out in February for obligatory lip-service to diversity, as I like to say that we're black the other eleven months of the year as well. A concert in any other month would be true diversity".

In the video Kirk Smith conducts the the St. Petersburg State Symphony in the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. 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, February 17, 2016

Classical music must connect with the head-fi generation


In the editorial for the February 2016 edition of Stereophile John Darko describes how headphone listening has taken the audio market by storm. In the early-adopter Japanese market headphone-only retailers now dominate the hi-fi market: the bi-annual Fujiya Avic Headphone Festival fills six floors of a Tokyo hotel, and the leading retailer 'e-earphone' - that is their store in the photo - is rolling out an ambitious store opening programme. In fact headphone listening is now so big that industry talk of 'hi-fi' has been replaced by talk of 'head-fi'. Even the terms 'headphones' and 'ear buds' are passé, with the neologism 'in-ear monitors' (IEMs) highlighting that quality and not portability defines this new category, and the importance of the big-spending and young head-fi generation is reflected in Sony spinning off an IEM offshoot Just Ear. As has been discussed here previously, headphones provide a totally different - more intimate and visceral - listening experience compared with traditional stereo via loudspeakers. So the new head-fi generation want their sound up close and personal; yet classical music remains in denial and doggedly wedded to proscenium arch sound that consigns concert newbies to seats that are far distant from the sound source. A recent Huffington Post article asked Can Technology Save Classical Music? but goes on to enthuse about providing iPads to the audience. iPads in the concert hall are Band Aids when what is really needed is major surgery. Because no one mixes for speakers these days, except symphony orchestras.

Let's forget all the arguments about the natural sound of the concert hall. The only natural sound of an orchestra is when it plays in an anechoic chamber, and that sound is very nasty indeed. 19th century architects used the best available technology of hard reflective surfaces to project and warm the sound, and in the 21st century infinitely better digital technologies are available to do the same thing. And these technologies also allow the sound to be shaped for the head-fi generation. Orchestral scores - with very few exceptions - do not define spatial layout, tonal balance or absolute loudness. Those who argue that digital technologies have no place in the concert hall conveniently overlook that the very same technologies are now the distribution platform of choice for classical music. I have been privileged to hear the world's best orchestras in the world's best concert halls, and I have argued here the case for listener to music rather than music to listener. But times have changed, and the sound of classical music must also change - as Marshal McLuhan explains: "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us".

Talk of a hideously expensive new London concert hall perpetuating an increasingly redundant sonic convention is ridiculous. Thankfully there are enough acoustically superb halls around the world to keep classical music in business for a few more centuries. But classical music needs to start appealing to the head-fi generation, and reservations about the sonic performance of existing London halls provide the perfect opportunity to experiment. The Barbican Hall is perfectly serviceable, even if it does not reach the exalted peaks of architectural and sonic excellence. Using advanced digital technologies from specialists such as Meyer Sound and CSTB Carmen, the marginally flawed acoustic of the Barbican can be corrected. In fact using these technologies the sound can be mapped to replicate the acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie, which should keep Simon Rattle happy. But more importantly, digital sound shaping technologies can give the Barbican a variable acoustic; this would allow not only a variable reverberation time but also varying degrees of immersive head-fi surround sound. And for the purists there would always be an 'off' button, which would restore the hall's natural sound. Variable acoustics are not a pipe dream, they are a fact of life in venues such as the San Francisco Symphony's experimental SoundBox.

In the 1970s IRCAM was created in Paris as an experiment in how music and sound could be redefined from the composer's viewpoint, and, as we all know, IRCAM under the mercurial leadership of Pierre Boulez became a transforming force. London now has the unique opportunity to lead the world in redefining music and sound - not from the composer's viewpoint, but from the audience's viewpoint. There is also the clinching argument that reinventing the Barbican complex as a centre of excellence for techonology-driven audience engagement would cost considerably less than the £278+ needed to build a new museum of sound close by. London does not need a new designer concert hall. But there is a desperate need for classical music to exploit new technologies in radical ways to appeal to new audiences, and rejuvenating the Barbican to create a versatile digital concert hall could do just that.

Header photo via Gotamag. 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, February 16, 2016

Who needs a designer concert hall?


A recent post suggested that anyone who thinks I am overstating the disruptive impact of technology on classical music should use journalism as a case study. This view was vindicated by the announcement a few days later that the Independent newspaper will cease publication of a print edition. I also pointed out that the response of the London Symphony Orchestra to disruptive technology, surplus capacity, and faltering demand is to increase capacity by building an expensive new concert hall - aka museum of sound - for their designate music director Simon Rattle. Debate continues as to how Sir Simon should be provided with the hall he feels he deserves; which reminds me of this story about one of his illustrious predecessors in Berlin. Herbert von Karajan was conducting at the same Bayreuth Festival as Hans Knappertsbusch. Backstage in the Festspielhaus there were just two lavatories at the end of a long corridor. Karajan's personal secretary, it is said, put a notice on one, 'For the exclusive use of Herr Karajan'. An hour later a notice appeared on the other one written by Knappertsbusch, 'For all the other arseholes'.

My post opined that non-celebrity professional and amateur ensembles - aka all the other arseholes - will have an important future role as they are better positioned to weather the inevitable collapse of classical music's top-heavy financial model. Among these ensembles is the Scarborough Symphony Orchestra in Yorkshire, England. On 30th April they perform William Grant Still's Symphony No.1, ‘Afro-American’ conducted by musician of colour Shaun Matthew - see photo above. This follows on from their UK première performance of William Grant Still’s Symphony No.2 in the orchestra's 2012 season. That the Scarborough Symphony should give the UK premiere of an important 20th century symphony is a sad comment on the myopic programming of the prestigious London orchestras. That the Scarborough orchestra give these innovative concerts not in a designer concert hall but in the town's Methodist Central Hall, is an even sadder comment on celebrity music making.

Three weeks after that noteworthy Scarborough concert, Mahler's Eighth Symphony is performed by the augmented forces of the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Matthew Andrews*. Performances of this gargantuan symphony are rare, and what makes this Norfolk and Norwich Festival 'Symphony of a Thousand' even more noteworthy is that the venue is a multipurpose exhibition hall at Norfolk Showground; thereby emulating the 1910 premiere performance conducted by the composer in the cavernous Neue Musik-Festhalle at the Munich exhibition showground.

Finally, the thread of musicians of colour leads this post to Morroco. The town of Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic Coast has many musical connections. Most notable is the famous annual Gnawa festival celebrating the music of the brotherhoods that practise the animistic rituals of folk Islam. Another connection that was explored here some years back is with rock music icons, including Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens. And Paul Bowles made some of his celebrated field recordings of Moroccan music among the Jewish community of Essaouoira in the early 1960s. But on April 29th Essaouira connects with a very different musical tradition when L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc (Philharmonic Orchestra of Morocco) perform Mozart's Requiem.

Formed in 1996, L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc is a professional orchestra of eighty musicians; the majority of the musicians are Moroccan who are supplemented by Europeans, and their chief conductor is Frenchman Olivier Holt. Mozart is famous for his connections with secret brotherhoods, so Essaouira is an unlikely but appropriate venue for this performance of his masterpiece. The Requiem is part of the annual Printemps Musical Des Alizés classical music festival in Essaouira. Chamber music recitals are given in the atmospheric Dar Souiri, but larger works such as the Requiem are given in the multi-purpose Salle Omnisports. Like Scarborough and Norwich, Essaouira lacks a purpose-built concert venue, yet alone state-of-the-art designer hall. But there is still a burning passion for classical music, and that is what really matters. I will be at the Norwich Mahler performance; but very inconveniently, the Grant Still symphony and Mozart Requiem clash. So sorry Scarborough, as I have yet to master the art of bilocation, I will be in Essaouira.

* An error in the original text regarding the anniversary of the premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony was corrected on 20/02/2016. Thanks go to Andy Olson for pointing out my error. No complimentary tickets or other rewards 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.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Nusrat dropping ecstasy


That image by the Indian graphic artist Dharmesh Prajapati is titled Nusrat Dropping Ecstasy 2. It is one of the visuals referenced in a new biography of the great qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan by ethnomusicologist Pierre-Alain Baud. Far more than a chronological biography, Nusrat: The Voice of Faith is a valuable exploration of how art can interact with culture. Above all, as the title tells us Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (NFAK) was the ecstatic voice of faith, with a programme note for a 1993 concert in Paris describing his art as "religious fervour taken to the highest level of musical madness". He was an adept of the Chisti Sufi order, and his music blazed with Sufism's ecstastic love for the Divine. But there was no fundamentalism in his faith: his beloved Qawwali has its sources in a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism, and his musical madness crossed all geographic boundaries. Pierre-Alain Baud describes how, despite supporting the Muslim League during the Partition of India, NFAK remained popular in India and scored Bollywood films.

Providing film scores, including music for movies directed by Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers was a film he later regretted being associated with) was just one way in which NFAK challenged conventions. Another was his work with an eclectic group of musicians led by Peter Gabriel; this collaboration resulted in a remix of his qawwali fusion track Mustt Musst with the British trip-hop band Massive Attack becoming a dance floor hit that went on to feature in a Coca-Cola advertisement. Another track from the same fusion album reached a wide audience via the film Bend It Like Beckham.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's liberal, some would say cavalier, attitude towards licensing his music and piracy is a stark contrast to the current attitude of today's intellectual property owners. There is no doubt that the unrestrained diffusion of his music was one of the factors that contributed to his huge popularity. As the film director Jérôme de Missolz explains in the book: "It is actually quite beautiful in a way, this idea that at a given moment, music travels through "piracy" and the idea of a musician working only for the record industry is completely distorted. The music lives and is propagated outside of their control". Pierre-Alain Baud also delves into darker corners, explaining rather diplomatically that: "The people who had surrounded Nusrat, particularly those closest to him, had, in fact, without being fully aware of what they were doing, hastened the process of physical degeneration that led to his premature end".

Nusrat: the Voice of Faith is a valuable portrait of a great musician and spiritual powerhouse who entered the Guinness Book of Records for releasing more albums than any other artist, whose videos have been watched millions of times on YouTube, and whose records outsold Elvis Presley's. But the value of this biography goes much further than mere documentation: because it raises the question of, if Western classical music really wants to reach a wider audience, should it be less concerned about dumbing down? Debate about the appearance of Gustavo Dudamel and the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at the Super Bowl is relevant - perhaps we should pay more heed to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's credo that: "Art is, in fact, something very important, but for me it is simply a means of conveying the message I have inherited from my great ancestors"? But above all, this new biography is a powerful reminder that music - particularly great music - can live and and be propagated without surrendering control to a self-serving media industry.



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Friday, February 12, 2016

Some things need to be challenged


Seeing that spike in Overgrown Path site traffic triggered by yesterday's post Classical music has more than one glass ceiling reminded me of this quote:
Rebellion is not always bad. Some things need to be challenged. The minority is often right. There is something built into us that should not be quenched - something that won't always go along with the status quo. Creativity is sometimes born of rebellion. Yes, there is the well-known negative side to rebellion; but complacency in the context of abuse or exploitation is unacceptable. And if we constantly squelch in others and within ourselves that quality of rebellion, the results are stunting.
Quote comes from the idiosyncratic self-published memoir God Helped Us Smuggle Hash by Pepper Sweet. No review sample 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, February 11, 2016

Classical music has more than one glass ceiling


Two things depress me about classical music's treatment of musicians of colour. One is that they are so seriously underrepresented. The other is that there is so little concern about that underrepresentation. Many posts have appeared On An Overgrown Path about this lamentable situation. The most recent was titled Why do we still not believe in Negro symphony conductors? It pointed out that in more than 2500 Promenade concerts in London there have been just three black conductors, giving a 0.002% minority representation. These statistics generated virtually no interest, yet alone righteous indignation. Which contrasts very sharply with the media feeding frenzy that surrounds the appointment of women conductors. And please don't accuse me of political incorrectness. The historic underrepresentation of women in classical music is also a cause for great concern. This blog was one of the first to raise this issue in a post ten years ago titled BBC Proms 2006 lacks the eternal feminine . Since then there have been numerous articles on the subject; including one about the forgotten figure of Antonia Brico who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic back in 1930. Which was fifteen years before the first black conductor took the podium at a Berlin Philharmonic concert. My congratulations go to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for smashing the glass ceiling at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. But the job is not finished until there is a black conductor at the Last Night of the Proms.

Montage shows Kwamé Ryan with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Kwamé Ryan featured in a 2011 post about musicians of colour at the BBC Proms. 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, February 10, 2016

Classical music has a new audience but nobody noticed


Yesterday's post described how the tanbur master Ostad Elahi was lavishly praised by Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Béjart, despite never appearing in public or making a commercial recording. There is a strong case for arguing that the power and purity of Ostad Elahi's music came about because of, rather than despite, a lack of commercial exploitation. It can also be argued that Western classical music can learn much from this Persian jurist, spiritual seeker and master musician who died more than half a century ago, and who never performed before a conventional audience.

Art music and its cousin Western classical music evolved from sacred music created by Hildegard of Bingen and other early composers for no audience other than God. Over the centuries classical music morphed from being a privileged means of communicating with the Divine, to communicating with a less-Divine and more human audience. By the 20th century it had become accepted that this human audience would exhibit three essential characteristics: first, the audience would be passive consumers of music, secondly that they would pay for the music they heard, and thirdly, that the audience would be relatively homogeneous in taste and lifestyle. The bloated business model which celebrity classical music operates on in the 21st century depends on this compliant, financially submissive, and monolithic audience, and the failure to understand the rapid decline of that traditional audience - traditional not in age or taste but in behaviour - lies at the heart of most of classical music's current problems.

Western classical music is obsessively committed to exploiting new media; but only in futile pursuit of its legacy audience. Concertgoers are given the concession of applauding between movements, but are otherwise expected to be passive and compliant consumers. Concertgoers are given the concession of free streams of operas and concerts, but are still expected to pay handsomely to enter a concert hall or opera house. And concertgoers from an increasingly diverse society are assumed to all have the same tastes, and consume en masse the same programmes featuring the same few composers.

Why hasn't classical music woken up and smelt the coffee? Listeners are no longer passive consumers: they are active users of new technologies that allow them to customise their playlists very precisely. The same technologies have changed the way people pay for their music, and have also changed the perception of how much they should pay. And the advent of streaming and other selective technologies is making 'one size fits all' concert programmes of established masterpieces redundant. Much has been made here and elsewhere of Britten's 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener. That holy triangle is derived from a Newtonian worldview of discrete entities, but we now live in an era of quantum entanglement, where all events - subatomic and musical - are interconnected. New technologies are blurring the boundaries between composer, performer and listener; which means we are fast approaching the point where, to quote another great Persian mystic Rumi "The listener is the performer, and the performer is the listener".

We are told repeatedly that the audience for classical music is dying because of the average age of concertgoers. It is true the audience is dying; but because of changing technology and expectations, not changing demographics. Anyone who thinks I am overstating the impact of these changes should use journalism as a case study. New technology allowed newspaper content to be made available free online - just as classical music is being streamed free online. This precipitated a massive shift from print to online content. Publishers have belatedly countered this by offering content for monthly online subscriptions that generate far less revenue than traditional printed papers - Spotify and Apple Music are the classical equivalents. But, despite this, newspapers are hemorrhaging cash. Take the case of the Guardian, the news media equivalent in status and quality of the Berlin Philharmonic or London Symphony Orchestra. In its current financial year the Guardian will have burnt through almost £80 million in cash, and, as a result, is being forced to cut its costs - including staff - by 20%. And, classical music please note, success online does not compensate for failure elsewhere. The Guardian is the world’s second most popular English-language news website. This is an impressive achievement that has failed to solve the newspaper's financial woes; because, unless you are Google or Facebook, it is very difficult to monetise Internet traffic.

Disruptive technology, surplus capacity, and faltering demand are facts of life in classical music. Yet the response of the London Symphony Orchestra, to which Simon Rattle is moving from the Berlin Philharmonic, is simply to press for increased capacity in the form of an expensive new concert hall just yards from a perfectly serviceable alternative opened in 1982. Classical music is far from dead; and if it is smart it will not be playing to empty halls in the future. But it must adapt its business to appeal to the new self-curating, heterogeneous audience, and those changes must be far more fundamental than allowing applause between movements, boosting Facebook 'likes', and building yet more concert halls.

At the root of the problem is the inequality between classical music's superstars and the rest. The top 1% not only enjoy eye-watering incomes, but they are afforded a status by a sycophantic media that belittles the huge number of fine musicians working in the many other ensembles away from major metropolitan centres. The result is that grassroot professional music making has become no more than a training ground for tomorrow's superstars - an invidious process that simply raises financial expectations throughout a fiscally challenged industry. Celebrity classical music is a dinosaur that is feeding off the carcass of the moribund traditional audience. The spotlight needs to be shifted, both in finance and status, to the rump of non-celebrity professional and amateur musicians and ensembles who are better positioned to weather the coming financial storm. Flattening the supply pyramid will also bring the diversity that classical music needs to meet the demands of the new heterogeneous audience. Classical music may not be dead, but in its present form it is a car crash looking for a place to happen. New hands are needed on the wheel to prevent endless rounds of 20% cuts, mounting operating deficits, and closures of grassroots ensembles.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Master musician who never performed in public


Any musician whose playing prompted Yehudi Menuhin to declare "Never had I heard anything like it... I could hardly believe my ears", and who was described by Maurice Béjart as "The greatest musician I had ever encountered in my life" deserves our attention. And they are even more deserving of that attention when we realise that this remarkable musician never performed in public and never made a commercial recording.

It was Ostad Elahi who prompted these accolades. He was born in western Kurdistan in 1895, and his father was a senior figure in the Ahl-e-Hagg [Fervents of the Truth]. This mystical order is found among the Perians, Kurds and Turkmen of Iraq and Iran, but is also found as far afield as the Yemen. The order is related to the Yazidis of Iraq, who are currently in the news because of their persecution by ISIS, and to the 'Alawis, to which the beleagured Assad regime in Syria adheres. The Ahl-e-Hagg is categorised as a heretical strand of Islam which shares with the Shiites a veneration for the Prophet Muhammad's cousin Alī bin Abī Ṭālib. However, despite this veneration for the Fourth Caliph the sect has dualist Manichean beliefs that align it with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and the heretical Christian Cathars. (The related Yazidi religion is influenced by Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity as well as Islam.)

Ostad Elahi was a child prodigy who was recognised as a master of the tanbur - the Persian lute - by the age of nine. Until he was twenty-one he practised the tanbur in his native village for long hours, and his autodidacticism led him to expand the repertoire of the ancient instrument and develop a new playing technique. When his father died he renounced his ascetic lifestyle and embarked on a career in the Persian judiciary under the reforming Reza Khan. His career spanned almost three decades, and he rose to the position of chief judge of the criminal court of appeal in Tehran, the highest rank attainable in the judiciary. In these roles he became celebrated for his resistance to the corruption in Persia's criminal justice system.

Throughout this high profile judicial career Ostad Elahi remained committed to spiritual and musical development, and this led to his encounters with Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Béjart during his time in Tehran. His development took him to away from his spiritual and musical roots to develop a synthesis that was more relevant to the mid-20th century. From Ahl-e-Hagg he moved on to advocate a syncretic approach to faith that reflected the perennialism of René Guénon, but which retained its veneration for Alī bin Abī Ṭālib. In the compilation of his teachings The Path of Perfection Ostad Elahi describes how: "Music is a divine creation. Music was created to express and awaken spiritual emotions". To achieve this awakening he advocates the Sufi practice of 'zekr' (or zikr) - the remembrance of God through music leading to ecstasy.

Although Ostad Elahi never gave a concert and made no commercial recordings, numerous recordings were made by his disciples, and for some of these the microphone was in the next room to avoid alerting the master to the presence of a tape recorder. Many of these unofficial recordings have been released on the Chant du Monde label in acceptable sound despite their unusual provenance. As an introduction The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi, a 2 CD overview compiled for the 2014 Metropolitan Museum, New York exhibition celebrating his art and music, is recommended. Samples of his playing and an excellent documentary introduction can be found in a WNYC programme linked to the exhibition. These archive recordings are a million miles from the fashionable world music that Ross Daly describes as “an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”. Instead they allow us to experience music that Yehudi Menuhin described as "very sensitive, very powerful... and at the same time very precise and pure."



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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Wanted - an audience of innocent ears


That is Cecil Lytle in the photo above. In any discussion of the piano music composed jointly by Georges I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann, the focus invariably falls on the mercurial Gurdjieff, with de Hartmann consigned to the role of amanuensis. But in Cecil Lytle's essays that accompany his recordings of the complete piano music of Georges I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann made in the late 1980s while he was on the music faculty at University of California, San Diego, Lytle turns the spotlight on Thomas de Hartmann.

Born in Khoruzhivka, now part of Ukraine, Thomas de Hartmann was a graduate of the Russian Imperial Conservatory of Music, and studied conducting under Felix Mottl in Munich. In 1906 his four-act ballet La Fleurette Rouge [The Pink Flower] was performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, and Michel Fokine dancing principal roles. A close friend of Alexander Scriabin, Thomas de Hartmann was also close to Wassily Kandinsky, who he met while studying in Munich. He shared the artist's interest in anthroposophy - other musicians attracted by Rudolf Steiner's teachings included Bruno Walter ando Jonathan Harvey - and synesthesia, and collaborated with Kandinsky on the 'color-tone drama' The Yellow Sound [Der gelbe Klang]. This experimental work was never performed in the lifetime of its creators, but was given a belated premiere in New York in 1982 using a score reconstructed by Gunther Schuller.

Because of the involvement of Gurdjieff - who is bracketed with Osho and Aleister Crowley in a thoughtful book titled Three Dangerous Magi - the piano music of de Hartmann and Gurdjieff is too often consigned to the spiritual freak show pigeonhole. But Cecil Lytle points out parallels between it and the compositions of Ravel, Busoni and Scriabin. As his compelling pianistic advocacy proves, among the voluminous de Hartmann/Gurdjieff oeuvre there is some estimable music that deserves to find an audience of innocent ears.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

In search of the lost orgasm

"It’s great when patrons share your content and events on Facebook but if you don’t have an image that conforms to Facebook’s recommended practices, you can end up lowering your conversion rates thanks to the share dialog pulling an ill-suited image" ~ orchestra business expert Drew McManus explains how orchestras can level up their Facebook share dialog game.

"I have one question, will it give me an orgasm?" ~ Leonard Bernstein explains his criteria for deciding whether to conduct Mahler’s reconstituted Tenth Symphony.
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