Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How two corporate record companies got it completely right


As a founder member of the corporate label knocking movement it is somewhat chastening to be writing yet again in praise of releases from corporate record companies. A few swallows may not make a spring, but it seems that Universal Music's corporate rivals have learnt the lesson from the Sinfini fiasco that it is the music and not the egos around it that really matters. So in our celebrity-fixated age it is a delight to see Warner Classics devoting a 24 CD retrospective to an outstanding conductor from the pre-Rolex years. There are too many riches in Sir Charles Groves: British Music to list here; but they include the stunning in every way - including the artwork - Walton disc seen above, Delius' Koanga (complete) and Mass of Life, Bliss' A Colour Symphony and Morning Heroes, Elgar's Caractacus and The Light of Life, and Vaughan William's Hugh the Drover, and as the icing on a very delicious cake Havergal Brians Sixth and Eighth symphonies - listen to Havergal Brian's Eighth via this link.

This lavish reissue of EMI recordings, which comes complete with original LP artwork, is a very fitting tribute. But there was much more to Sir Charles Groves: he gave the Proms premiere of Jonathan Harvey's Persephone Dream in 1981 (coupled with Brendel playing Brahms' First Concerto and Janáček's Sinfonietta), and while principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the orchestra's glory years from 1963 to 1977 his choice of repertoire was notably adventurous. Simon Rattle recalls pleading with his father in 1966 to let him hear Sir Charles conduct the RLPO in Messiaen's Turangalila when it was still a rarity, and - this will surprise many - in the 1960s Sir Charles mounted the first ever cycle of Mahler symphonies in Britain with his Liverpool orchestra*. Among my memories of him is a 1970s performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony in the glass house on steroids that is Alexander Palace in north London. That performance was particularly memorable because in the Symphony of a Thousand's few quiet passages the pigeons up in the roof added a touch of Messiaen to the score.



Sony Music is another corporate label that has got the message that the industry's big opportunity is neglected music. Which means that on April 15th they are releasing a super-budget priced 11 CD box of Sir Malcolm Arnold: The Complete Conifer Recordings. This is very good news indeed; not only does the set include Sir Malcolm's nine neglected symphonies in superlative performances conducted by Vernon Handley, but there is the bonus of his eleven concertos. Conifer made many outstanding recordings, so let's hope that Sony will now make more of these available. Let's also hope that classical music's taste makers give these two refreshing new releases the support they deserve irrespective of the gender of the two musicians they celebrate. On An Overgrown Path was one of the earliest advocates of increased representation of women in classical music, and I am sorry if the following upsets some people. But there is an imminent danger of the much needed correction in gender balance turning into an unhelpful political correctness. So let's hear it for all marginalised musicians, including Sir Charles Groves and Sir Malcolm Arnold.


* Even more surprisingly, some say the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performances were the first European Mahler cycle - can anyone confirm or correct that?

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Is the music really that sacred?


Before technology proliferated, composers used the only available technology of the orchestra to deliver imaginative interpretations. Mahler reinterpreted the ländler - a Carinthian folk tune - in his symphonies, and Berg introduced a ländler into the first movement of his Violin Concerto. Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony reinterprets Mahler, Wagner, Glinka and Rossini, while the composers Berio remixed in his Sinfonia - which was written in 1968 on the cusp of media proliferation - are too numerous to list here. Despite these auspicious precedents, and despite quantum leaps in digital technology, Western classical music has suffered a technology seizure. Which means technology is being used as a tool to defend an unsatisfactory status quo, instead of being used to implement much needed change. I use the moniker Western classical music deliberately; because although this it is often difficult to believe, there are other classical musics, and as is often the case the Western art form can learn much from its Eastern cousin.

A valuable case study is Cheb i Sabbah, who used new technology to bring a different classical music and contemporary audiences together. He was born in Constantine, Algeria in 1947 of mixed Berber and Jewish parentage, and moved with his family to Paris in 1960 at the height of the Algerian War of Independence, and built a reputation as a DJ in the burgeoning Parisian discotheques scene. In the May 1968 student uprising in Paris he came into contact with the co-founder of the Living Theatre Julian Beck, whose collaborators included Alan Hovhaness who composed music for its productions in the 1950s, and John Cage, whose Music of Changes was premiered at a Living Theatre concert in 1952. Cheb i Sabbah connected with the Living Theatre's pioneering mix of politics, drama and multi-media and he stayed with the group through the 1970s. While with the Living Theatre he met Don Cherry who was a member of the pioneering world music group Codona; both musicians shared a passion for gender bending and Cheb i Sabbah became Don Cherry's road manager and turntablist until Cherry's untimely death in 1995.



In the late 1980s Cheb i Sabbah presented a show on KPFA Berkeley and promoted Bay Area concerts featuring artists such as qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and bhangra DJ Bally Sagoo. These concerts became experiments in synesthesia, with scents, food and graphics tailored to the music. In 1990 Cheb i Sabbah began turntabling at Nickie's on Haight Street in San Francisco, and for fifteen years his Tuesday night sessions achieved cult status with their eclectic beat-driven mix of world music - the photo below shows him spinning at Nickie's. He adopted Hindu practices and became a devotee of Bhakti yoga, and when the celebrated Indian vocalist Salamat Ali Khan performed in Berkeley, Cheb i Sabbah proposed that they collaborate. The resulting project which challenged the industry status quo by using montaging snowballed to include, among others, sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan, sarodist K. Sridar and bassist Bill Laswell.


The resulting album Shri Durga was released on Six Degrees Records and was a major commercial success that spawned a remix Maha Maya - audition Kese Kese which is based on the Raag Durga via this link. Six Degrees is an independent label devoted to accessible, genre-bending music, and Cheb i Sabbah ensured that his releases received synergistic graphic treatment, as can be seen from the accompanying artwork. Sri Durga and Maha Maya were followed by the more austere mix of Hindu Bhajan (hymns) Krishna Lila - sample here. Cheb i Sabbah's final album before he died of stomach cancer in San Francisco in 2013 was La Kahena: this featured the vocal music of his native Maghreb supplemented by the signature sounds of Bill Laswell’s bass lines, techno drum machine, electronica and ambient effects - sample here.


Cheb i Sabbah did not simply add drum'n'bass to traditional music; instead he used new technology to reinterpret the Eastern classical canon for a contemporary audience, and the integrity of his reinterpretations is confirmed by the role call of respected musicians who agreed to work on them. This was also the case with qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan whose Mustt Musst in a remix with the British trip-hop band Massive Attack becoming a dance floor hit. What is particularly relevant to Western classical music is that a new young audience was introduced to Indian classical music and qawwali by albums which purists consider heretical, but the result has not been a general dumbing down of these mainstream traditions by the widespread adoption of drum'n'bass backing.

Cheb i Sabbah and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provided a bridge from non-classical to classical. But despite a remorseless obsession with new audiences the Western classical tradition ignores the importance of these bridges. (There are a few notable exception such as 'interpretive musicologist' Uri Caine and the puzzlingly overlooked Wagner Transformed) . For me and for others of my generation, the sadly topical Emerson, Lake and Palmer provided a valuable bridge with classical/rock hybrids such as Pictures at an Exhibition, Fanfare For The Common Man and Hoedown. And just as drum machines have not replaced tablas, keyboards and electronic guitars have not replaced symphony orchestras. Today Western classical music is suffering from advanced schizophrenia: the music is absolutely sacred and related arguments about, for instance, applause betweeen movements drag on ad infinitum. But beyond the music anything goes, and I really mean anything - from violinists in wet T-shirts to gutter journalism. Classical music desperately wants a new audience, so where have all the bridges gone?. Nobody is suggesting a resident rock band in Sir Simon's new designer concert hall; but is the music really that sacred? Wagner, Berg, Shostakovich and Berio were prophetic voices who leveraged available technologies to disseminate their message. Western classical music needs to learn from that because as Varun Soni tells us his insightful book Natural Mystics:
Throughout history, prophetic voices have been shaped and defined by the political, commercial, technological, and cultural movements of their milieu. These prophetic voices only endure if their messages are strategically disseminated to the widest possible demographic. That is why the most popular prophetic voices have always been the most technologically savvy. Indeed, prophecy is not only a function of scripture, but also of technology.

Sources include The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli, Global Beat Fusion by Derek Beres, and Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing by Judith Becker. No review samples were used in this post. Header photo is via MV Galleries. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, March 25, 2016

With new media comes new prophetic channels

Going to Mecca doesn't settle the matter,
Even if reciting hundreds of prayers there.>
Going to the Ganges doesn't settle the matter,
Even if one is hundred of times immersed in her.
Going to Gaya doesn't settle the matter,
Even if reciting hundreds of precepts.
What settles it, Bulleh Shah,
Is when I erase ego from my heart.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan declaimed that lyric*, and Varun Soni's Natural Mystics: The Prophetic Lives of Bob Marley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is an expanded doctoral dissertation that studies the two great musicians as prophetic mediators of religion, politics and popular culture. The importance of erasing ego from the heart is a message that is resolutely ignored by Western classical music. But there is much else in Varun Soni's thesis that classical music should take to heart, not least his assertion that music is a prophetic tradition. He then proposes that prophetic traditions rely upon technology to disseminate their messages, and that with new media comes new prophetic channels. Western classical music is proud of using new media - MP3, streaming etc - to disseminate its message, but the message itself remains firmly defined by 19th century conventions. Technology, demographics and lifestyles are creating new prophetic channels. But classical music uses new technologies to do no more than maintain the status quo; not just in performance traditions, but also in its ego-ridden and corporate-driven business model. Which means the digital revolution is set to become become yet another missed opportunity for classical music. In the spirit of challenging the status quo I conclude with a link to my 2013 post Why louder classical music is better classical music.

* Lyric comes from Ni Main Jana Jogi De Naal by the 16th century Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah. No review samples used in this post, but thanks go to JMW for acting as my shipping agent. 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, March 24, 2016

From post-modern to post-everything


There has been a flurry of interest on social media in Belgium composers, so I am giving a heads up to a composer who is unlikely to feature elsewhere. Jean-luc Fafchamps was born in Brussels in 1960, and his music is topically relevant because of its transcultural sub-agenda and its brutally contemporary idiom - one reviewer has described him as writing in an "appealingly post-everything style, with diatonic minimalist gestures butting up against wheezy microtonal drones and so forth". Jean-luc Fafchamps is not a Sufi or a Muslim, but his quest for a compositional system based on analogue correspondences led him to the symbolic charts known as Sufi Words created in 16th century Mughal India. He uses Sufi symbology as a compositional tool in much the same way as John Cage and his circle used the I Ching, and my 2012 post gives more details of his composing system. Lettres Soufies is envisaged as a vast network of cycles, two of which have been recorded by the Brussels based Sub Rosa label. There is an extended sample below to allow you to decide for yourself if Jean-luc Fafchamps' music is appealingly or appallingly post-everything.



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.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sacred path of the cello warrior

'The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in a cocoon, in which we perpetuate our habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of habits and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground' - Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
The fresh ground in Warner's super-budget 9 CD Rostropovich box includes Cristóbal Halffter's Cello Concerto No. 2, André Jolivet's Cello Concerto No.2, Norbert Moret's Cello Concerto, Darius Milhaud's Cello Concerto No. 1, Alun Hoddinott's Noctis Equi, Krzysztof Penderecki's Cello Concerto No. 2, Arthur Honegger's Cello Concerto, and works by Renaud Gagneux, Rodion Shchedrin, Marcel Landowski and Alexander Knaifel.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Can classical music learn from Rumi?


Coleman Barks' books of Rumi's poetry have sold more than half a million copies worldwide, and in 1994 Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America. Poetry like classical music is a minority artform; yet Rumi has opened up a new market for poetry, the size of which classical music would die for. So can classical music learn from the Rumi success story?

What is little-understood is that the bestselling volumes of Rumi's poetry from Coleman Barks are not actually his translations, but are in fact very skilled creative interpretations. Coleman Barks makes it no secret that he does not speak Farsi (Persian), the language of Rumi, or that his versions are populist re-writes of scholarly translations. In Rumi: Soul Fury he explains that:
Of course, as I work on these poems, I don’t have the Persian to consult. I literally have nothing to be faithful to, except what the scholars give... What I do is a homemade, amateurish, loose, many-stranded thing, without much attention to historical context, nor much literal faithfulness to the original.
Back-to-back comparisons of Rumi's original text and the best selling interpretations confirm the assertion that there is little faithfulness to the original. Coleman Barks is not the sole practitioner of populist interpretations, nor is the practice confined to Rumi - in Love Poems from God Daniel Ladinsky gives fast and loose poetic interpretations of, among others, Rumi, Hafiz, Meister Eckhart, St Francis of Assisi, and Kabir. And respected classical musicians who are said to have 'set Rumi' have, in fact, set interpretations of varying authenticity. For instance Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight and Ashes dance back both use Andrew Harvey's very free interpretations published as The Way of Passion. The authority on Sufism Yannis Toussulis - who with some justification questions the separation of Rumi's poetry from roots in Islam - describes Andrew Harvey's interpretations as "both spiritually ecstatic and (homosexually) erotic".

Karol Szymanowski avoided the pitfall of modern interpretations of Rumi in his Third Symphony, Song of the Night, by composing this pioneering setting of the Sufi master's poem in 1916. But Philip Glass' 1997 opera Monsters of Grace uses Coleman Barks' renderings, and the composer's official website erroneously states: "Opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. Poems by Jalaluddin Rumi, translated and adapted from the original by Coleman Barks". While in Dinner with Lenny, Jonathan Cott also confuses interpretation and translation when he describes how a day before Leonard Bernstein died: "A friend came to visit him and, at Bernstein's request, he read out loud Coleman Barks's translations of a number of poems by the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, in particular some lines from Rumi's deathbed poem".

On the one hand, an artform where the score is considered sacrosanct can look at these self-confessed homemade, amateurish, loose interpretation, and declare that there, but for the grace of God, go we. But, on the other hand, classical music needs a new audience, and half a million sales of CDs/downloads would not go amiss. Is classical music being unduly anally retentive in its slavish devotion to authenticity? While the score may be sacrosanct, there is an erroneous and dangerous orthodoxy that the attributes of the sound are encapsulated in the score. This has led to the mistaken belief that 'concert hall sound' is also sacrosanct. In fact, the sound of an orchestra is defined by the complex interaction of seven attributes, pitch, rhythm, tone colour, absolute loudness, relative loudness, spatial location and acoustic. The composer's score only defines pitch, rhythm, tone colour and relative loudness (dynamics). This leaves absolute loudness, spatial location and acoustic as non-composer defined variables, and these have been fixed for more than a century by concert hall conventions that no longer reflect how the vast majority of people listen to music.

In her important but overlooked essay in The New Enquiry Elizabeth Newton defines the phenomenon of affective fidelity as "faithfulness to our own pasts, preferences, and principles". There is a persuasive argument that classical music is suffering from a severe case of affective fidelity, which has resulted in changes in consumer behaviour and technology being quashed by a slavish faithfulness to preferences and principles formed in 19th century concert halls. These musings may seem surprising coming from a founding member of the anti-dumbing down movement. But Coleman Barks' genius is to interpret Rumi for modern audiences, and there is a compelling argument that the sound of classical music needs to be re-interpreted for the head-fi generation. The challenge for classical music is to use new technologies to redefine the three non-composer defined variables in a way that appeals to new audiences, while remaining faithful to the score. Rumi may arguably have been dumbed down; but the new audience he has attracted shows the potential of imaginative reinterpretation. As Elizabeth Newton explains in her essay The Lossless Self:
Counterfeit money is real if someone accepts it. Is counterfeit sound real, then, if someone hears it as such? If someone likes it? If someone buys it? If someone shares it with a friend?
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Friday, March 18, 2016

Lesson 1: don't trash plan A before checking plan B works


That creative work for Sinfini Music came from Studio Output. This creative shop's client list numbers a slew of BBC brands including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and J.K. Rowling's personal company Pottermore. Studio Output's credentials presentation features its work for Sinfini, but makes no mention of the project's failure and closure. Presumably because the Sinfini work is considered a success by the creative shop; which would have received a generous non-performance related fee for its work paid from the millions that were squandered on the aborted website. Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream nailed it in a recent interview:
I have zero expectations for the music industry. [Labels] beholden to shareholders... only invest in Ellie Goulding or puppet girl singers or boybands they know they can make a killing on. They'll never invest in art, they're not artistically driven people... It's impossible to earn a living from making records unless you're Adele.
More lessons from the failure of Sinfini via this link.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Beginning to become faint

"Beginning to become faint" What an apt phrase that could describe the fate of many composers of "notated music" as Alex Ross would describe it. The lights dim for us all one day, but the miracle of recorded performances, now stretching back 100 years and more, preserves a tiny glimmer of light in may composers or musicians darkness as the memories of the living pass into oblivion.

We must not forget that many small, independent, records labels (some, no doubt, akin to cottage industry) preserve music for us. Or should that be "curate"? Just last night I was listening to a Lyrita release of two long forgotten symphonies by William Wordsworth taped off air by the late Richard Itter and released with the co-operation of the BBC. Interesting stuff composed by an interesting man who, I guess, will never be performed live ever again and certainly not by Mr Dudamel and his all-star orchestra.

These small (and not so small in the case of Chandos & Hyperion, for example) record labels deserve our support and money for releasing this stuff and, one day, I fear that the just-departed Maxwell Davies will glimmer in the gloom as far as the "major" record companies are concerned.
That comment was added to my post Thoughts on the death of another great musician by Mark A Meldon. Also in the Lyrita catalogue is Nicholas Braithwaite's account of William Wordsworth's Second and Third Symphonies - this is a studio rather than off air recording. The only audio examples of Wordsworth's symphonies I can find are these brief samples, which at least give a taste of this long forgotten symphonist. As Mark points out, Richard Itter's off air recordings of BBC broadcasts are being released with the co-operation of the BBC. In the past contractual problems with the musicians involved in the original broadcast have been cited as the reason why the BBC's priceless archive of classical recordings could not be made available. But these recordings from 1971 and 1979 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of William Wordsworth's symphonies must have been contractually cleared. So why cannot the riches in the BBC's classical archive be made available online in the same way that British Pathé has made its entire collection of 85,000 historic films available on YouTube?

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What a difference two words make

What does "under-represented" mean in this context? Because some minority group doesn't have "representation" in some profession it's assumed to be evil? Perhaps it's simply not part of the culture and it is a self-selecting group. After all, "classical" music is male in origin and culture, so why should there be a lot of women "represented"?
It is disturbing that a comment like that should be made in 2016, even if such sentiments are now - quite rightly - greeted with vociferous protests and Twitter firestorms. That comment was added to a recent Overgrown Path post, but clarification is needed. I have changed two words, and the comment greeted with neither vociferous protests nor a Twitter firestorm. Here is the original wording:
What does "under-represented" mean in this context? Because some minority group doesn't have "representation" in some profession it's assumed to be evil? Perhaps it's simply not part of the culture and it is a self-selecting group. After all, "classical" music is European in origin and culture, so why should there be a lot of blacks "represented"?
Philip Amos was one of just three diehard readers who responded to that affront, and in his response Philip drew attention to how jazz has successfully integrated musicians of all colours. In African Rhythms, the autobiography of the African American jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston, there is evidence of that integration. Randy Weston describes how colours and music genres mixed in the Berkshires in the 1950s when his jazz trio was resident at the Music Inn resort and played to an audience that included Leonard Bernstein and musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The trio's bassist was the African American musician Sam Gill, who went on to become principal bassist for the Denver Symphony; on his retirement in 2007 he was thought to be the longest-tenured black musician in a major symphony orchestra. In African Rhythms Sam Gill recalls how at the Music Inn:
The classical musicians who were in residence up in the Berkshires during that time also heard something different in Randy. There was one man I remember, an Italian composer, [BS - Luigi Dallapiccola?] who used to come to hear us every night and just marvel at Randy. He would say, "That reminds me of Ravel".
As well as giving a tantalising glimpse of those golden summers in the Berkshires, Randy Weston's memoir tells it like it is, describing the head of a record label in these words:
He was one of those guys you find in the record business who are all too typical: the big smile, the warm personality, and the total lack of artistic sincerity; they hug you one moment and profess their undying love for you and your music, the next moment they dip into your pocket.
But it is the potent mix of pride in being black and anger at endemic racism that makes Randy Weston's autobiography such a powerful read. Largely due to committed activism, the discrimination against women in classical music is, thankfully, disappearing. But let's not fall into the trap of thinking that balancing the male/female ratio is the only equality related challenge facing the art form. As John - one Grammy, no orchestra - McLaughlin Williams explains in his robust response to the comment that started this post:
While there aren't explicit racial obstacles to participation by minorities (any more, that is), in practice the same old barriers are still in place; they just aren't acknowledged publicly. I know so many absurdly talented black classical musicians, many of whom function artistically at the highest levels of manifest accomplishment.
So let's widen the target for the vociferous protests and Twitter firestorms. Because rightful pride comes in many different forms, as Randy Weston explains so eloquently in the introduction to African Rhythms:
My very existence dictates that before the importance of music in my life comes pride as a black man; even if I didn't play music I'd still be fighting and striving for black people. Music has been a way for me to convey that struggle; I've been blessed, gifted by the Creator with the power of music. But before the music came tremendous pride, coupled with anger at what racism has done to my people. That foundation of dignity and strength comes from growing up in a segregated, racist society; growing up alongside people who were considered a "minority." I was endowed with the belief that "I know that no man is better than me," so as a result I grew up spiritual but irate at our collective condition as a people...

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Thoughts on the death of another great musician


Recently I made a resolution not to write a knee-jerk tribute every time a great musician died. Of course the passing of a towering talent must be appropriately marked. But classical music lives in the age of the next big thing, and in our 24/7 connected world the half-life of those next big things is getting shorter and shorter. Yes, let's pay our respects, but we must avoid the untimely death of a great musician becoming nothing more than today's big thing, to be replaced by whatever new big thing breaks tomorrow. We need to remember Peter Maxwell Davies and the others that we have lost recently. But we need to remember them in perpetuity. That means rising to the difficult challenge of keeping their music alive and introducing it to new audiences long after the animated echo chamber of social media has stopped resounding to tweets of 'RIP Max'.

Header illustration is my 1985 LP of Max's Third Symphony with the much-missed Edward Downes conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on the defunct BBC Atrium label. 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, March 13, 2016

You have to question everything that is accepted


Richard Alpert was together with Timothy Leary the public face of the so-called Harvard psychedelic club in the early 1960s. As academics at Harvard, Leary and Alpert championed the enlightenment enhancing potential of LSD. Leary's career went into a tail spin when his tenure at Harvard was terminated for providing LSD to students and he was subsequently jailed. However Richard Alpert's later career was more auspicious; he travelled to India in 1967 and met his guru the Hindu mystic Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him the name Ram Dass. In 1971 Ram Dass wrote Be Here Now, a book that became one of the most influential counterculture texts and has sold more than one million copies.

Hallucinogens have many connections with classical music, starting with Berlioz’s opium inspired Symphonie Fantastique. Aldous Huxley, whose circle included Igor Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood, and Charlie Chaplin, told a colleague that; "If you ever use mescaline or LSD in therapy, to try the effect of [Bach's] B-minor suite". There are also more tenuous connections between composers and LSD, and the unlikely link between Elgar and hallucinogens was explored in an earlier Overgrown Path post. There is another similarly tenuous link between a composer from Elgar's time and the Harvard psychedelic club, and that fascinating link leads us down today's overgrown path.

John Foulds was born in 1880, and his involvement with Indian mysticism reached a wide audience through the 2008 performance in London of his World Requiem. Reckless hyping of this convoluted and flawed work inflicted needless damage on Foulds' reputation. But, as discussed in an earlier post, Foulds wrote some striking and overlooked music that was deservedly championed by Sakari Oramo in his time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - audio sample here. John Foulds and the Harvard psychedelic club now converge, because one of the works that Sakari Oramo recorded with the CBSO was Foulds' the 'Song of Ram Dass'. Like Richard Alpert, John Foulds was drawn to India, and in 1935 he moved there and became director of European music for All-India Radio in Delhi; the photo above shows Foulds in 1937 with his embryonic Indian European Orchestra. But sadly his pioneering trans-cultural work was cut short when Foulds died of cholera in Calcutta in 1939. Which is why the link between John Foulds and the Harvard psychedelic club is tenuous: John Foulds wrote 'Song of Ram Das' in 1935, and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass was only born in 1931. However, although the link is tenuous there is some substance - sorry about the pun - to it.

Malcolm MacDonald's definitive 'John Foulds And His Music' describes the 'Song of Ram Dass' as a "tranced adagio", and explains that the short orchestral work is based on a tune in Indian style provided by the composer's second wife Maud MacCarthy, who was a major influence on Foulds' mystical path. However, Malcolm MacDonald offers no explanation for the song's title. My own research has uncovered two explanations for the title. The published score for 'Song of Ram Dass' explains the title as a reference to Swami Ramdas, a revered Hindu teacher who lived from 1884 to 1963. Which is perfectly plausible, and paths converge at this point, because Richard Alpert/Ram Dass has written: “In 1970 I came upon the writings of Swami Ramdas... and there it was, so innocently presented, a testament to the possibility that by remembering Ram (God), one’s life could be transformed, totally transformed.…”. However Adrian Corleonis gives a conflicting interpretation of the title, explaining that: "The title [Song of Ram Dass] refers to a 16th century Sikh guru, not to be confused with the Harvard professor who appropriated his name", presumably referring to Sri Guru Ram Das ji (1574- 1581). As explained above, Adrian Corleonis is wrong in stating that Richard Alpert appropriated the name of a Sikh guru, but his reference to confusion over names is pertinent.

My searches have failed to find a single instance of the nomenclature Ram Dass being used to describe either Sri Guru Ram Das or Swami Ramdas. The score for 'Song of Ram Dass' was not published until very recently (the currently available version is dated 2014), by which time, thanks to Richard Alpert, the title Ram Dass had very wide currency. Did a Freudian transposition between composer's pen and published score and CD result in a tranced adagio from a composer born in the year that Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for Strings being dedicated to a leading figure from the psychedelic 1960s? Without sight of John Foulds' manuscript score we will not know the answer to that question. But this tenuous path does underline the wisdom of another great thinker from the Indian subcontinent Jiddu Krishnamurti. Convergence abounds here, because not only is Krishnamurti revered by Ram Dass, but he started his spiritual path through the Theosophy movement, a tradition which also strongly influenced John Foulds' muse Maud MacCarthy. Krishnamurti's wisdom has informed so many of my overgrown paths but is, alas, stubbornly ignored in our obsessively mediated culture:

Authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive, evil thing. Leaders destroy the following and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary
Header photo is very the John Foulds Estate. 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.

Friday, March 11, 2016

£1 million and counting.....

Yesterday's post about the failure of Sinfini Music clearly struck a nerve and has prompted some illuminating discussion. In my article I estimated that Sinfini burnt through around £1 million of funding. This exchange in the public domain on Facebook between two knowledgeable people is particularly illuminating:
A - Loving the supposedly bold estimate of the cost of the thing. Way to go yet.
B - Indeed. It burnt through that before it had even been launched.
Just think what our financially challenged performing ensembles could do with the millions that Universal Music flushed down the toilet at Sinfini - the English National Opera chorus immediately springs to mind. The tragedy of all this is that very little of the wasted money reached the musicians at the bottom of the food chain, but instead went to consultants and other middle feeders. Sinfini's stated aim was to help its audience "discover the very best of classical music", which is precisely what ENO and the many other fine but struggling ensembles are doing, and will continue to do long after this sorry saga is conveniently forgotten. Now I wonder when the 'inside track' journalists who wrote for Sinfini are going to run this story?

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

There are lessons to learn from the failure of Sinfini Music


When a high profile project goes belly-up there is usually much public debate about why the project failed and what lessons can be learnt. But not so with the Sinfini Music website which was launched with much fanfare, and promised to 'cut through classical', but which has now quietly disappeared. Readers will know that Sinfini divided opinions sharply, but that should not be a barrier to discussing what went wrong. The website was financed and controlled by Universal Music; this group has an annuual turnover of £3.5bn, and not only controls more than 50% of the recorded classical music market, but also through vertical integration controls the classical supply chain from music publishing through to concert promotion. Sinfini was funded for three years at a level other websites would die for, it recruited top media professionals from BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Opera House, and commissioned modish writers including Norman Lebrecht, Jessica Duchen and Paul Morley. A small fortune was spent on graphic art some of which adorns this article, Sinfini websites targeted the Australian and Dutch markets as well as the UK, and there was even a Sinfini record label. No official figures are available, but it is not unreasonable to estimate that the website burnt through around £1 million in its short life*. Sinfini Music was obviously a very big hitter indeed, in fact it was one of classical music's biggest marketing initiatives in recent years. So what went wrong?

The story has been doing the rounds that the failure of Sinfini was due to personnel changes within Universal Music following the unfortunate early retirement through ill health of ceo Max Hole. But this explanation is difficult to believe. Yes, politics are a fact of life in major record labels. But would Sinfini really have been axed if it had been achieving its self-professed objective of helping new audiences discover the very best of classical music? - an objective which translates into plain English as selling more Universal Classics' recordings. The answer has to be no; so we must conclude that despite more than adequate funding, despite generous helpings of dumbing down, and despite being the very model of a modern marketing campaign, Sinfini failed to sell enough classical music to justify its continued existence. Now if that is not a lesson for the whole classical music industry, I don't know what is.



It is now standard practice to apply consumer marketing techniques to classical music, and Sinfini was an example of the currently fashionable technique of native advertising - surreptitious mixing advertorial and advertising content. During my career I worked both in classical music and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) marketing, and the conclusion I reached was that classical music does not behave like a consumer product such as cornflakes. So my proposition today is not only that FMCG marketing techniques such as native advertising are an ineffective way of promoting classical music to new audiences, but that this type of marketing actually produces a negative reaction in the crucially important established audience. In applied psychology cognitive dissonance theory recognises that individuals seek consistency among their cognitions (opinions); which means when there is an inconsistency (dissonance) between cognitions, something must change to eliminate the dissonance. The remorseless hyping of classical music's next big thing inevitably creates dissonance when experience fails to match expectation. A good example is Valery Gergiev's tenure at the LSO, when to eliminate the dissonance between experience and expectation both the orchestra and the audience voted with their feet.

Clearly audiences need to be told about forthcoming concerts and record releases, and the merits of those performances need to be communicated by effective promotion. However, forcing classical music into a consumer goods behaviourial model is misguided. But this approach has become prevalent because the senior management in record/media companies has come up through rock music; which is a totally different genre that does behave like consumer goods. Given the obsessive search for new audiences, and given the failure of much-hyped initiatives such as Sinfini, it is surprising that more effort has not been devoted to identifying a valid behaviourial model for the classical music market. I am confident in my view that classical music cannot be marketed as a consumer good, but I am much less confident in expressing a view on the behaviourial model that does apply. However, in the hope of stimulating constructive discussion, I am proposing that the solution to the challenges currently facing classical music may be found not in contemporary marketing dogma but in perennial wisdom.



The demand for consumer goods is volatile in the short-term, and can be stimulated at brand level by promotion and advertising. My proposition is that demand for classical music fluctuates in longer-term cycles, and that these cycles are insensitive to standard promotional techniques. Classical music is not a brand, and the cyclical demand for it at the macro level is determined by a complex mix of cultural, demographic, and technological factors that cannot be changed by conventional marketing tools. An analogy would be the Hindu cycle of four yugas or epochs, although the cycles in the classical music market are measured in years or decades rather than centuries. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s classical music experienced an auspicious and extended Satya Yuga (era of truth and perfection) as the market was stimulated by the arrival of the LP and then stereo, and concerts benefited by a widening of the repertoire that embraced new 'discoveries' such as the music of Mahler and Bruckner. In the 1980s the launch of the compact disc marked the end of the beneficial Satya Yuga, and the Tetra Yuga dawned when virtue diminished as piracy arrived on the back of digital technology. In the 1990s classical music entered the Kali Yuga - the age of darkness and ignorance - as the perfect storm of demographic change, technology driven piracy, mismanagement in the record industry, and diminishing external funding eroded the income stream of major performing ensembles.

In 2016 we are still in Kali Yuga, and there is no sign of that changing soon. One important lesson from the failure of Sinfini is that it is wrong to simply blame external culprits such as poor management and inadequate funding for classical music's present difficulties, because Sinfini had generous funding and strong executive management support; yet it still failed. Another important lesson for an industry obsessed with things digital is that Sinfini was 100% new media, but it failed. New media is a powerful tool in the right hands, but in the wrong hands it is doomed to fail. Classical music needs to learn these lessons and accept the cyclical nature of the market; which means the smart thing to do is to ride out the current downturn by tackling core problems such as excess capacity and profligate spending. This is not a nihilistic view, because in cyclical markets downturn is always followed by upturn. But the music needs to be given space to speak for itself, and the industry must stop smothering the music with every promotional gimmick it can find in a futile attempt to reverse the irreversible. In a post about the Mahan Esfahani's brouhaha in Cologne I recounted the old advertising adage that says if you shout too loud, people won't listen. In my view that is what happened at Sinfini Music - the website shouted so loud the audience couldn't hear the music. When will they ever learn?


* More on my £1 million estimate via this link and on how for a lucky few there is no difference between failure and success via this link.


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Wednesday, March 09, 2016

George Martin - 'the finest album I ever made'


The production credits of George Martin, who had died aged 90, include all the Beatles' masterpieces except Let It Be. He worked with other artists ranging from the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Celine Dion and Elton John. So ask any rock fan to name the finest George Martin album and the answer is very likely to be Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or another classic from the charts. But legend has it that the man himself chose as the finest album he ever made a little known LP recorded by a pioneering American ensemble five years after Sgt. Pepper*. Despite the celebrity endorsement the Paul Winter Consort's 1972 Icarus remains almost unknown. Yet you only need listen to the first few tracks - audio sample here - to realise that not only is this a truly great album, but it is also the fountain from which flowed some influential music trends that are still around today. George Martin's production credit coupled with this personnel listing gives an idea of the sheer inventiveness of Icarus:

The Consort
Paul Winter - soprano sax, vocals
David Darling - cello, vocals
Paul McCandless - oboe, English horn, contrabass Sarrusophone, vocals
Ralph Towner - classical guitar, 12-string guitar, piano, Regal, bush organ, vocals
Herb Bushler - bass
Collin Walcott - conga, tabla, mridangam, surdos, traps, kettledrums, bass marimba, sitar

Friends of the Consort
Andrew Tracey - resonator guitar, voice
Billy Cobham - traps
Milt Holland - Ghanaian percussion
Larry Atamanuik - traps
Barry Altschul - random percussion

Janet Johnson, Paul Stookey, Bob Milstein - voices

Despite the low profile of Icarus several individual tracks have gone on to become classics including the title cut and The Silence of a Candle, both penned by Ralph Towner, and Paul McCandless' timeless All the Mornings Bring. Like the Beatles, The Paul Winter Consort contained more talent than it could safely hold and Paul McCandless and the late and great Collin Walcott broke away to form Oregon and in 1978 Wallcott went on to form Codona. Today the Paul Winter Consort continues to make music and release albums under the leadership of its eponymous founder. Read more on Collin Walcott and Codona in my 2009 post, and in another post how Oregon went on to record with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio.

* I deliberately use the wording "legend has it that the man himself chose as the finest album he ever made...". This is because I always try to double-check sources. There are a number of reference to the George Martin quote but I cannot find confirmation of the source. If any reader can help I will make the appropriate changes.
** Band listing comes from Paul Winter's World of Living Music which is rich in resources.
*** Paul Stookey contributes vocals on the final track. Stookey was the 'Paul' of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
**** But there is a very interesting interview with George Martin about working with the Paul Winter Consort here. It includes the apocryphal story that an audio cassette of Icarus was left on the surface of the moon by a NASA astronaut.
***** Synchronicity (or something): George Martin also produced Elton Johns' 1997 hit Candle in the Wind.

Earlier versions of the post mistakenly said that George Martin did not produce The White Album, whereas it was Let It Be that he did not produce. Thanks go to Cynthia Barger for pointing out that error. This is a revised version of a post from January 2011. 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.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Just listen to this CD artwork


A chance online mention that Sergei Prokofiev died on March 5th 1953 set me listening to Mstislav Rostropovich's accounts of the Prokofiev symphonies over the weekend. These passionately committed interpretations are enhanced by the exceptionally lifelike sound captured in 1986/7 by Erato in the Grand Auditorium, Radio France, Paris. Like many of these reissue boxes, this 4 CD set can be bought for a stupidly low price if you shop around. And in addition there are erudite notes by David Nice who started a recent thread On An Overgrown Path, plus that evocative artwork. A post back in 2012 explained how sleeve artwork changes the sound of CDs, and this Prokofiev box is yet more proof of that perplexing phenomenon.

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Sunday, March 06, 2016

One of the most imaginative talents in 1940s America

John McLaughlin Williams writes ~ Your recent post on Bruno Walter and Samuel Barber is very interesting, particularly your mention of Daniel Gregory Mason. He is utterly forgotten today despite his having notable performers and performances. This is due in part to his second tier compositional abilities, and also to his espousing of uncomfortable views about ethnic influences in (then) contemporary music. While not as openly virulent a racist as John Powell, Mason did promote the notion of "purity" in American music, as in its being more properly derived from Anglo-Saxon sources rather than the folk music of former slaves and Jews.

Bruno Walter did what he could for Mason, but he was far more enthusiastic about John Alden Carpenter. As a composer Carpenter was a much more imposing figure than Mason, and Walter did his music many times. [BS - Walter performed Carpenter's First Symphony with the LA Phil in 1940, and premiered his Second Symphony with the NY Phil in 1942.] You may find a column by Terry Teachout as interesting as I did, as it quite succinctly and fairly assesses Carpenter, though at the time it was was written there were no recorded examples of Carpenter's mature work, and thus it cannot be called a truly complete view of the composer's work. At that point my recording was still years away - sample here. A review of that CD described John Alden Carpenter as "one of the most polished and imaginative talents at work in 1940s America".

Carpenter was also egalitarian in his dealings with others; he was among those who supported the African-American composer Florence Price in obtaining important early performances of her orchestral music. Price became the first female of her race to write a symphony and have it performed by a major ensemble - see video below.


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Saturday, March 05, 2016

It's not just the audience that is shouting

Any disruption of a concert is unacceptable, but the media brouhaha - "people were reportedly seen crying in their seats" - over the disruption at harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani's recent Cologne concert is disproportionate. Esfahani, who was born in Tehran but - Independent headline writer please note - grew up in America where he attended high school and university, is signed to Universal Classics. At Universal one of his labelmates is pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who famously rewrote the book on using brouhaha as a promotional tool. Both artists have received copious coverage on brouhaha central, aka Slipped Disc and featured prominently on the little-lamented Sinfini website, and the Steve Reich work at the centre of the Cologne controversy is on Esfahani's recently released Deutsche Grammophon CD. There is no doubt that Mahan Esfahani is a very talented musician, and it is regrettable that his concert was disrupted. But there is an old advertising adage that says if you shout too loud, people won't listen. Mahan Esfahani should remember that this applies to the musician on the platform as well as to delinquents in the audience.

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Friday, March 04, 2016

Samuel Barber - more than an adagio


In Sony's invaluable 39 CD Bruno Walter The Edition there is just one work composed after Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Samuel Barber's First Symphony in a 1945 recording made with the New York Philharmonic - Barber is seen in the photo above. Walter's tastes in contemporary music during his later years in America favoured the neoclassical and neoromantic. In particular he championed the compositions of Daniel Gregory Mason, and we are fortunate that archive recordings ripped to YouTube of Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic in Mason's Second Symphony and the NBC Symphony in the Suite After English Folk Songs allow us to sample this now forgotten and deeply unfashionable composer.

Samuel Barber's music also found favour with Walter, and following his successful championing of the composer's First Symphony Walter planned to programme the Second Symphony. This had been commissioned in 1943 by the United States Air Force as a tribute to aircrews, and the original version included a part in the second movement for a specially constructed electronic tone-generator to represent the technology used in warplanes. The symphony was premiered in March 1944 by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was revised in 1947 when Barber replaced the tone-generator with an E-flat clarinet. When Bruno Walter received the score of the Second Symphony he was, to quote his biographers Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky "utterly repelled by it". Subsequently the revised symphony was taken up by Alexander Hilsberg who performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. (Ryding and Pechefsky state that this performance was conducted by Eugene Ormandy, but Barber's biographer Barbara Heyman quotes a letter from the composer stating that the conductor was Hilsberg.)

In 1964 Barber withdrew the Second Symphony and ordered his publisher G. Schirmer to destroy the score and parts. He pleaded - rather disingeneously in view of Shostakovich's 7th and other great wartime symphonies - that "times of cataclysm are rarely conducive to the creation of good music", dismissing the symphony as "not a good work". In the same year Barber created the tone poem Night Flight from the second movement of the withdrawn symphony, making only minor amendments to the original score. (Wikipedia is wrong in stating that material from other Barber works is used in Night Flight; see Barbara Heyman p 230).

But all the materials for the Second Symphony had not been destroyed, and a set of orchestral parts was discovered in Schirmer's English warehouse in 1984. These parts were used for a 1988 recording by Andrew Schenck and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. (This recording was made, unsurprisingly in a studio in New Zealand and not, as stated on Wikipedia, in New York.) The symphony was subsequently taken up by Marin Alsop who recorded it for Naxos, and the persuasive account ripped to YouTube and featured below is by the Detroit Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi.

Because of the ubiquitous Adagio for Strings, Barber is something of a one work composer, although his Violin Concerto has gained some traction in the wake of the popularity of the Korngold Concerto. (Some would argue that the Barber is the better piece.) Why Barber's Cello Concerto is not better known is a mystery, while the Sonata for Piano would surely respond to committed advocacy, while the Allegretto from his Excursions Op 20 is among my music to die for. Resurrecting works explicitly withdrawn by their composer is always contentious, although rather less contentious than the fashionable practice of posthumously completing works from sketches. But Samuel Barber's Second Symphony demands reappraisal, as its champion Andrew Schenck so eloquently explained in the note for his pioneering recording of the work:

But Barber was much more than a composer of 'absolute music.' He was a kind of tone poet who could capture perfectly the essence of his subject material. Sheridan's wit sparkles through the Overture to the School for Scandal, the First Essay is musical rhetoric at its noblest, and Barber's music emerges from Shelley's lines as if Shelley himself had dreamed it. The same poetry permeates the Second Symphony. It evokes the majesty of flight, the terror of war, the loneliness of te skies at night, the triumph of victory. For this reason above all, Samuel Barber's Second Symphony deserves a better fate than the oblivion assigned to it by its own composer.


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