Monday, April 11, 2016

Will the world end if the master musicians stop playing?

Brion Gysin died in Paris in 1986. I remember he always used to say that if the Master Musicians of Jajouka ever stopped playing, the legend holds that the world will end. He often worried about the chronic poverty of the musicians, and the diluting effect of contact with the modern world upon the ancient music. But the Pipes of Pan survive to this day.
That is William Burroughs writing in the sleeve notes for Apocalypse Across the Sky, Bill Laswell's recording of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. The Master Musicians first achieved global recognition through Brian Jones' LP The Pan Pipes of Jajouka which was posthumously released in 1971. William Burroughs wrote his note in 1992, and the gloomy prognosis that if the master musicians stop playing the world will end has been the repeated message of the classical music industry in recent years. But just how true is that prognosis?


Almost half a century after Brian Jones brought their ancient music to the modern world, the Master Musicians from Morocco play on. As recounted in earlier Overgrown Path posts, the Jajouka musicians have survived commercialisation and an acrimonious split, and one of the Jajouka ensembles played at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival while the other is appearing at the Barbican in London in September. The technology obsessed modern world has certainly impacted on art music, but has it really diluted it? This month Paul Bowles' pioneering 1958 field recordings of Moroccan music have been made available to a global audience in an exquisitely presented 4 CD box Music from Morocco by the independent Dust-to-Digital, a label with the mission "to produce high-quality, cultural artifacts". Recent eloquent advocacy by Amanda Petrusich writing in the New Yorker and Adam Schatz in The New York Review of Books underlines the importance of this new edition of Morocco's ancient music. It is impossible to do justice in words to the presentation of the set - particularly the 119 page leatherette-bound booklet - and the remastered sound belies the age of the original masters captured by Paul Bowles' Ampex 601 reel-to-reel recorder. Photos 2 and 4 here are reproduced from the Music to Morocco booklet. The set includes Bowles' field recordings of gnawa and Jewish music made in Essaouira, and photo 3 below was an archive photo of Jewish cantors that I unearthed in Essaouira when researching my 2010 post Jewish music under the sheltering sky.


In a few days I return to Essaouira, and the mixed blessing that is the iPod means the music captured by Paul Bowles will return to its source and play on through the digital avatars of the musicians that performed it in Morocco more than half a century ago. So also in Western art music, with master musicians such as Bruno Walter - seen in the header photo - playing on for a new generation of listeners via lovingly curated CD reissues. New technologies mean the master musicians of the past will never stop playing, but what about today's masters? Claiming that the world will end if the current generation of Western master musicians stops playing is a convenient way for the music establishment to defend the damaging and stultifying status quo. The classical music industry has an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and the world will not end if the celebrity master musicians stop playing. But, despite this, we still need great art, and if classical musicians are to continue playing in our concert halls we need a a new breed of masters performing more adventurous repertoire, taking a far more positive approach to changes in listening habits, and working under a different and less divisive business model. Just as the Pipes of Pan from Jajouka adapted and play on, so the master classical musicians must adapt if they want to play on. Keep well while I travel.


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