Sunday, July 31, 2016

Like a spark flung out from a fire

'The Buddha is known as the one 'thus come', Tathagata. He has no more 'meaning' than a flower, than a tree; no more than the universe; no more than either you or I. And whenever anything is experienced that way, simply in and for and as itself, without reference to any concepts, relevancies, or practical relationships, such a moment of sheer aesthetic arrest throws the viewer back for an instant upon his own existence without meaning; for he too simply is - 'thus come' - a vehicle of consciousness, like a spark flung out from a fire' - Joseph Campbell, Zen Myths To Live By
Claude Vivier’s Siddhartha, inspired by Hermann Hesse's eponymous book depicting the spiritual journey of a young man seeking enlightenment, is one of the composer's few works for orchestra. Vivier's life and music reflected Joseph Campbell's view that "the first and foremost aim of Zen... is to break our net of concepts".

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Permission granted to like unfamiliar music

Earlier this year a widely read Overgrown Path post explained how audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music. Now that permission is being granted in style by a 4CD box from Lyrita titled British Symphonies. It will retail for around the cost of a single full price CD when released on September 9th. Buy it or live forever in darkness, because this is what is on the discs:

Disc: 1
1. William Sterndale Bennett, Symphony in G minor Op.43
2. Cyril Rootham, Symphony No.1 in C minor
3. E.J. Moeran, Sinfonietta

Disc: 2
1. Arnold Bax, Symphony No.1 in E flat
2. Edmund Rubbra, Symphony No.4 Op.53
3. Alan Rawsthorne, Symphonic Studies

Disc: 3
1. Lennox Berkeley, Symphony No.3 in One Movement Op.74
2. William Alwyn, Symphony No.5 ('Hydriotaphia')
3. Grace Williams, Symphony No.2
4. Malcolm Arnold, Sinfonietta No.1 Op.48

Disc: 4
1. William Wordsworth, Symphony No.3 in C Op.48
2. Humphrey Searle, Symphony No.2 Op.33
3. John Joubert, Symphony No.1 Op.20

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We must keep his music alive

The media resounds with fulsome tributes to Einojuhani Rautavaara who has died aged 87. These tributes quite rightly position him as an important figure in contemporary music. Yet the reality does not reflect the theory: taking that useful barometer of music fashion the BBC Proms, Rautavaara's music has only been performed three times at the Proms, and not since 2008. All I can do is paraphrase what I wrote when Peter Maxwell Davies died. We need to remember Einojuhani Rautavaara 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 media has moved on to the next big thing.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Call it good or bad, I love to experiment

It is troubling when I find myself agreeing strongly with a view expressed in the all too often reactionary Spectator. But Damian Thompson's totally justified castigation of the Southbank Centre's forthcoming Belief and Beyond Belief festival - "This is a missed opportunity on an epic scale" - echoes my view. The fashionably themed concerts, which are billed as "a festival of music inspired by spiritual belief", are presented in collaboration with the London Philharmonic and run from January to June 2017. They include two Mahler symphonies, two Bruckner symphonies and that ubiquitous expression of joyful fuzzy spirituality Beethoven's Ninth. As Damian Thompson observes: "As for the concerts, they look suspiciously like the programmes the LPO was planning to perform anyway, before they had the three-Bs label slapped on them.."

As is the vogue, the warhorses gallop alongside contemporary music including commissions and premieres from Aaron Jay Kernis and Magnus Lindberg. In Damian Thompson's view "Belief and Beyond Belief reeks of Scriabinesque condescension." That condescension is very evidence in the programming which applies the all too familiar formula of juxtaposing new and very familiar music in the same concert. Yes, these 'front half hyena, back half koala' concerts may attract sizeable short term audiences that are prepared to sit through a Magnus Lindberg premiere for the reward of Beethoven's Ninth. But is there any hard evidence that this hyena/koala format, which inevitably fails to satisfy either neophyte or nerd, builds the much more important long term audiences? The Southbank Centre argue there is, but I question their argument.

Belief and Beyond Belief is the brainchild of Southbank Centre director, Jude Kelly. She received justified praise for masterminding the Southbank Centre's acclaimed Rest is Noise festival in 2013. Few dare criticise Jude Kelly because she is one of the elite group of power brokers that controls classical music in Britain. But that will not stop me from proffering the view that Belief and Beyond Belief is no more than a muddle-headed attempt to repeat the success of The Rest is Noise.

Let me give an example of that muddle-headedness. On the Belief and Beyond Belief website there is a seminar on Jan 28 titled 'What you need to know: Shostakovich Symphony No.5 In Depth'. We will overlook that the tension between Shostakovich and Stalin must be one of the most overexposed backstories in classical music, and also overlook that this seminar sounds suspiciously like The Rest is Noise reheated. My point is that in the Beyond Belief festival there is not a performance of performance of Shostakovich's Fifth. But it gets even worse, because the day after the seminar there is a performance of the symphony at the Southbank Centre. But it is not part of the festival; presumably because the orchestra is the St Petersburg Philharmonic, and as Beyond Belief is an LPO party they don't want another orchestra gatecrashing it.

All this muddle-headness is exacerbated by a Southbank Centre website which is generously larded with platitudes but is painfully hard to navigate. Which means a a website visitor seeing details of the Shostakovich 5 event is very likely to leave without ever finding out that the next day there is a performance of the symphony; because there is no link from the talk to the symphony. However the same confused visitor may stumble across another Shostakovich symphony that is part of Beyond Belief; because the composer's Fifteenth Symphony does make the cut into the festival, presumably because it is played by the LPO.

But let's stop playing hunt the Shostakovich; because there is the far more important question of how inclusive should a a festival of music inspired by spiritual belief be? A recent post here commented on how the classical industry refuses to even contemplate any sacred music from beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, as Belief and Beyond confirms, that proscription extends effectively to all music outside the mainstream Western tradition. The photo above shows Ravi Shankar performing with Yehudi Menuhin, and the sitar master's recorded legacy for EMI also includes collaborations with percussionist Terence Emery (who worked with Pierre Boulez), flautist Jean Pierre-Rampal (who had works composed for him by Boulez* and André Jolivet), and conductors Lorin Maazel and André Previn. Pandit Shankar also collaborated with Philip Glass on a project released by Atlantic (in the photo below Philip Glass is nearest the camera with Shankar next to him), and Shankar's valedictory Symphony was premiered in 2010 by, ironically, the London Philharmonic Orchestra with daughter Anoushkar playing the sitar obbligato.

If Belief and Beyond Belief really is a festival of music inspired by spiritual belief, why is music from beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition not included? Yes, the Southbank Centre does have notable separate mini-festivals of non-Western music. But by forcing music - and therefore audiences - into hermetically sealed genre boxes, musical boundaries are being built not demolished. Classical music needs wider as well as younger audiences, and another music festival has shown very successfully how the definition of spiritual belief can be - in fact should be - widened in our multi-faith age. In 2012 the Salzburg Summer Festival launched its Ouverture Spirituelle; each year this trans-cultural sub-festival brings together sacred music from Christianity and one of the other great perennial traditions, notably Islam in 2014 and Hinduism in 2015.

Ravi Shankar once explained "I have always had an instinct for doing new things. Call it good or bad, I love to experiment", and his experiments attracted new audiences in the 1960s and 70s. Today, acclaimed interpreters of Mahler and Shostakovich abound, but classical music struggles. Do any of today's celebrity musicians love to do new things and experiment? Are classical music's problems really due to changing demographics, reduced funding and the other alleged culprits? Is it not a case of musician heal thyself?

* Boulez's 1946 Sonatine was dedicated to Rampal; but he never performed it as he found it too avant-garde. Header photo is via France Musique. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 25, 2016

You yourself are the teacher and the pupil

There is an art of listening, when you listen to Beethoven or Mozart and so on, you listen, you don't try to interpret it, unless you are romantic, sentimental and all that. You absorb, you listen, there is some extraordinary movement going on in it, great silence, great depth and all that. So similarly if you can listen, not only with the hearing of the ear, but deeply, not interpret, not translate, just listen.
That quote comes from a 1985 TV interview with Jiddu Krishnamurti. There is some serious listening talent in the photo. It shows Aldous Huxley - who famously recommended that "if you ever use mescaline or LSD in therapy ... try the effect of the [Bach] B-minor suite" - kneeling in the foreground, while standing from left to right are Krishnamurti, Igor & Vera Stravinsky, Maria Huxley, and Radha Rajagopal Sloss. The photo was taken in 1949 at a picnic in Wrightwood, California. Radha Rajagopal Sloss was the daughter of the American born Rosalind Rajagopal, who was a director of the Happy Valley School in Ojai founded by Krishnamurti and wife of his business manager, editor and close associate D. Rajagopal. Krishnamurti died in 1986, and Radha Rajagopal Sloss alleges in her 1991 book Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti that her mother had a clandestine sexual relationship with Krishnamurti lasting twenty-five years.

Rosalind Rajagopal was a close friend of the celebrated Hungarian-born pianist Lili Kraus, while Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti recounts how "Rosalind's former tennis days stood her in good stead too for she found new friendships through this sport with, among others, the composer Arnold Schoenberg..." At the core of Krishnamurti's teachings - see video clip below - is the message that "...there is no teacher, no pupil; there is no leader; there is no guru; there is no Master, no Saviour. You yourself are the teacher and the pupil; you are the Master; you are the guru; you are the leader; you are everything. And to understand is to transform what is". In its early days Happy Valley School was supported by the southern California creative community which included Arnold Schoenberg and Lili Kraus. Pau Casals was a friend of Krishnamurti's and played for him in Rome in 1963, Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha performed at a talk given by Krishnamurti at Brockwood, England in 1975, and Igor Stravinsky moved in his circle. We can only speculate as to what subliminal influence Krishnamurti's radical teachings had on these free thinkers.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Go East young cellist

Alpesh Chauhan, who conducts two diurnal BBC Proms this weekend, started his career as principal cellist at the City of Birmingham Youth Orchestra. A friend in the industry tells me that the young British Asian - his parents were born in East Africa of Indian (Gujarati) descent - wants to be judged solely on his music-making, and not on his ethnicity, which is very admirable and refreshing. But there are connections between the cello and India which are worth exploring, so I hope Alpesh will forgive me for using him as the starting point of a path which leads East rather than West.

First up is a CD released in 2002 of cellist without frontiers Matthew Barley giving concert performances in London and New Delhi of two ragas, playing with sarodists Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash, supported by tanpura. Although purists may shudder, a raga played on a cello is not heretical. A raga is a loose and tight form that allows the musicians freedom to improvise within a strictly specified rhythm - taal - and an equally strictly specified note sequence (usually five, six or seven notes) that defines pitch. The music is freely developed within the defined parameters of pitch and rhythm in the gat segment of the raga, and as the music is not notated it can be argued that the use of a cello is acceptable if not conventional, provided that the structure of the raga is respected.

Another cellist to take advantage of the disciplined freedom of the raga form is Saskia Rao-de-Haas who has developed with violin builder Eduard van Tongeren an Indian cello which acknowledges the vital role of resonating strings in the sound of many traditional India instruments by adding ten resonating stings to the Western cello. Her double CD Making Waves captures the deep and sonorous tone of her Indian cello very truthfully; the discs, which were released in 2003, present three ragas played by various permutations of Indian cello and sitar with tabla - video here. Saskia Rao-de-Haas' double CD is only available as a download. Matthew Barley's CD is no longer available through the major retailer; however there are several samples on YouTube and copies still appear to be available for the bargain price of £4 direct from Navras Records.

More readily available is a recent release featuring a distant relative of the cello, the lyra-viol. On Captain Hume's Journey to India the viol virtuoso Philippe Pierlot takes the 16th century composer Tobias Hume on an imaginary journey to India, playing nine of Hume's compositions straight from the score before combining with Dhruba Ghosh on sarangi with support from tabla and tanpura in an exquisite ten minute improvisation. Captain Humes journey may sound unlikely, but it works magically. Unlike many contrived East meets West fusions, I return frequently to all the discs featured in this post, and it is for that reason I am sharing them with readers. But hopefully this path will also provide more musical nourishment than the recent story by an influential cultural commentator which led with the revelation that Alpesh Chauhan's father is a lorry driver.

* Staying with my Eastern theme, readers in the East of England who follow my numerous Indian paths may be interested in a recital in the Dhrupad vocal style by the revered Pandit Uday Bhawalkar in the Memorial Unitarian Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge at 3:00 PM on August 7th. Accompaniment is by pakhawaj and no cello is involved! 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, July 21, 2016

Digging beneath the diversity headlines

A puff for upcoming Proms in the Independent is headlined 'You don't need to be a white, middle-aged man to wield a baton' and it is very good indeed to see the immensely talented 26 year old British Asian Alpesh Chauhan on the podium in the Royal Albert Hall twice this weekend (July 23 & 24). Alpesh Chauhan - seen above - follows in the footsteps of Indian born Zubin Mehta who has conducted thirteen Proms, the most recent in 2011. But, despite that click baiting headline, it is still fiendishly difficult if you are a black man, yet alone a black woman, to wield a baton at the BBC Proms. In more than 2500 Promenade concerts there have been just three black conductors - all men - and the last one was back in 2003. It is also not insignificant that the 2003 Prom conducted by African American Bobby McFerrin was, like Alpesh Chauhan's two Proms this weekend, not the main evening concert but a daytime event. So sorry to spoil a good Indie headline, but the main events on both Saturday and Sunday in the Albert Hall have white, middle-aged men wielding the baton.

But let's be fair, there is progress. The BBC has a 'Black and British' season of programmes exploring diversity airing in November. One of the programmes with the working title of 'Young, Gifted and Classical' is about the 17-year-old black cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, and in October BBC Radio 3 is hosting a Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference in Manchester. I just wish I could be more enthusiastic about these BBC diversity initiatives. But in today's BBC, altruism comes a long way behind brand building, and there is little reason to think that these new initiatives will be an exception. The BBC press release headline for the Sheku Kanneh-Mason documentary plugs the BBC Young Musician sub-brand relentlessly, while this weekend's concerts conducted by Alpesh Chauhan are part of a heavily BBC branded education project. Plus ça change...

It is wonderful that Alpesh Chauhan and Sheku Kanneh-Mason are in the limelight. But they have already been snapped up by super-agents Hazard Chase and IMG Artists respectively, and their careers are secure. Let's hope the BBC's diversity season also includes a programme about the less fortunate black classical musicians who face institutionalised discrimination. There is no better case study for this than Rudolph Dunbar, who was born in the then British Guiana in 1907, became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945 and went on to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However Rudolph Dunbar's career went into an unexplained decline in the decade leading up to his death in 1988. Dunbar's brief obituary in the Musical Times recounts how: 'He gradually withdrew from public life, and devoted himself to fighting racism and trying to increase black involvement in Western art music'. But there is compelling evidence that this is not the whole story. In his book Musical Life in Guyana Dr Vibert C. Cambridge of Ohio University recounts how in an interview six months before his death: 'Dunbar spoke about the particular vindictiveness of a producer/director of music at the BBC who derailed his musical career in Europe. Dunbar described that director of music as “despicable and vile” and the BBC “as stubborn as mules and ruthless as rattlesnakes”'.

Investigating these allegations, which have been independently supported, is much more than an academic exercise; because the alleged discrimination would have occurred contemporaneously with the abuse within the BBC that precipitated the Savile scandal. Uncovering the truth about the treatment of Rudolph Dunbar would aid the understanding of the management culture within the BBC, an institution that in the intervening years has increased its stranglehold on classical music in Britain. If the BBC mined its own archives we would finally know the truth about what really ended the career of one of the first great black conductors. What a valuable contribution that would be to the BBC's diversity season. But I'm not holding my breath.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What would Mahler have posted on Facebook?

The current paucity of truly great classical musicians is often lamented. To achieve true greatness requires an awful lot of talent and hard work, but it also requires the cultivation of mystique. A definition of mystique is 'a quality of mystery', and that essential and elusive quality of mystery is being destroyed by the petty revelations of social media. I now find it almost impossible to listen to the sublime music making of a certain young and very talented virtuoso without being distracted by flashbacks to the candid photos posted on Facebook of the lifestyles of the rich and famous summer vacation that the musician recently enjoyed.

Elsewhere on Facebook my enthusiasm for the music of more than one contemporary composers is being solely tested by the unremitting and uncritical self-promotion of those composers, while my respect for a leading conductor was seriously challenged when he publicly bit the hand that feeds him in order to achieve fifteen minutes of social media fame. And much that I lament Brexit, the unrelenting and unproductive Twitter outpourings on the subject by some musicians leaves me wondering how they find time to play any music. Moreover musicians who automatically re-tweet and 'like' favourable comments and reviews about themselves are, in my eyes, guilty of trading mystique for self-aggrandisement.

Whether we like it or not classical music is rooted in the past both in repertoire and conventions, which means we cannot totally discount the past. So if social media had been available, what would charismatic figures such as Britten, Toscanini and Mahler have used it for? Would Ben have posted home movies of himself cavorting with Peter Pears on the beach in Bali? Would Toscanini have kept the world informed via Twitter of his falling-out with the fascist regime at the Salzburg Festival? Would Mahler have instagrammed a daguerreotype of the Hotel Belvedere's tafelspitz and flowed exclusive updates on his deteriorating heart condition to Norman Lebrecht?

That classical music is undervalued is now a constant complaint of insiders. But value is a function of scarcity, and almost without exception every current promotional strategy involves increasing what is already an oversupply of classical music, with social media and streaming being the prime culprits. As Leopold Stokowski explained: 'A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence...' The rule of 'no silence means no music' applies just as much on social media as it does in the concert hall.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Love has fallen into difficulties

That shrine to King Mohammed VI of Morocco - the fifth richest man in Africa with a personal worth of $5.7 billion - was photographed by me recently in Marrakech. Others find the Moroccan ruler's regime less lovable; they include the forgotten Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara whose cause is bravely championed by Sahrawi musician Aziza Brahim - sample here. The photo below of a Sahrawi was taken by me in Guelmim on the edge of the disputed territory and comes from my 2015 photo essay. Morocco's latest request to rejoin the African Union 32 years after leaving in a dispute over the Western Sahara confirms that King Mohammed considers his country's illegal annexation of the territory is a done deal. In Morocco as in so many other countries - Muslim and otherwise - the words of the 14th century Persian poet Hafez now ring so true:
Love which once seemed so easy,
has fallen into difficulties

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Monday, July 18, 2016

On the threshold of a dream

That is John Field above and a new CD from Decca of Elizabeth Joy Roe playing his Nocturnes is something to be cherished. Field is hailed as the father of the Nocturne, a musical form that has come to be associated with the demure etiquette of the salon. But as Elizabeth Joy Roe points out in her studious sleeve essay, for the Romantics nocturnal darkness unleashed dreams, hallucinations, nightmares and visions. A post here several years ago explored the links between hypnagogia and music. Hypnagogia is the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness during which lucid dreaming, hallucinations and out of body experiences occur, and Elizabeth Joy Roe's interpretation looks beyond the demure towards those states.

Universal Music takes a lot of stick on this blog, so it is pleasing to be able to recommend this CD so strongly. It is particularly pleasing at a time when recorded sound quality is too often sacrificed on the altar of streaming and download speed to commend the exemplary sound captured by tonmeister Philip Siney in Potton Hall, Suffolk. And for those aging dinosaurs who like me still collect music in physical formats, it is worth noting that improvements in CD mastering technology mean the complete Nocturnes now fit onto a single CD with a playing time of 86 minutes 8 seconds, whereas Michael O'Rourke's account on Chandos spans 2 CDs. Schubert's String Quintet and Schoenberg' Verklarte Nacht with Janine Jansen also on Decca has a playing time of 83' 11" and was a previous contender for the title of longest classical CD. At the risk of descending into response whoring trivia, has Elizabeth Joy Roe recorded the longest Red Book standard* classical CD? And again well done Universal Classics/Decca, because on both the the Field and Schubert/Schoenberg discs you can feel both the quality and the width.

* An overlooked benefit of the sadly neglected SACD format is the greatly increased storage capacity of the discs: for instance a now deleted BIS release of the complete Mendelssohn String Symphonies fitted more than four hours of music onto a single SACD disc. No comped goods or services 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.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Conductors in glass houses should not throw stones

That publicity photo for the 2014 BBC Proms season attracted a lot of criticism as yet another example of the dumbing down of the once great concert series. The conductor in it is Sakari Oramo, so it is surprising to find an interview with him in yesterday's Telegraph headlined 'Sakari Oramo: ‘The Proms should not be dumbed down''. And it is even more surprising and puzzling to find the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra explicitly criticising his BBC colleagues in the Proms planning team by saying "I would not go any further down this tendency of, what shall I call it… ‘dumbing down’, which one can see creeping round the edges... I would steer away from that totally, completely”.

Let me say now that I have the greatest admiration for Sakari Oramo as a conductor, and, of course, his criticism is perfectly valid. But he knew the direction the Proms were taking before he accepted the lucrative and prestigious post of chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - see photo below. In that powerful role he surely must have some influence. So will Oramo actually do anything about the trend that he laments? Or is his Telegraph interview just another example of opportunistic click bait publicity for a lacklustre 2016 Proms season and his own career? Call me old fashioned, but my view is that conductors in glass houses should not throw stones until they have repaired the windows broken by those they have chosen to work with.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Music that brings light into an increasingly dark world

Music from the esoteric realm on my current personal playlist includes the therapeutic syncreticism of Nawab Khan from India and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb from Morocco, and Jonathan Harvey's tantric hymn for cello and electronics Advaya. On the website of his Mantra Ensemble Nawab Khan makes a persuasive case for using sacred music from the great faith traditions as a non-doctrinal force for good. The wide appeal of sacred music is evidenced by the sales of Gregorian Chant. An album of plainsong by the monks of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain reached number 3 in the Billboard pop chart in 1994 and has gone on to sell more than five million copies, while Gregorian Chant is one of the few resilient genres in a depressed classical market. And in our metric driven age it is worth remembering that the US mind, body and spirit market is worth $11 billion compared with a recorded classical music market of less than $200 million.

Yet despite this, classical fundamentalists continue to sneer at "monkish chant", while in these supposedly inclusive times the classical industry refuses to even contemplate any sacred music from beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition. Which is inexplicable. Because as Western composer Peteris Vasks explains "...people go to the concert hall because they are looking for answers.. We have gigantic technological developments, but the souls of people are neglected. I always ask myself how I can compose so as to bring more light into this world. That is the purpose of music".

Is therapeutic syncreticism any less relevant to a more inclusive BBC Proms series than the therapeutic escapism of Strictly Come Dancing and David Bowie? And those who dismiss this post as mere Eastern whimsy may be surprised to learn that the following quote comes from an exponent of the mantra who was a key figure in the contemporary Western classical tradition, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Every genuine composition makes conscious something of this esoteric realm. This process is endless, and there will be more and more esotericism as knowledge and science become increasingly capable of revealing human beings as perceivers.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Click bait 1 - Composer 0

That is the English composer and political activist Ethel Smyth above. Tonight (July 13) excerpts from her choral work The Prison are being given their first American performance with orchestra at a New York concert* of music by women composers in support of humanitarian causes. An event which the UK's cultural commentators - male and female - have chosen to totally ignore. But the same commentators are devoting screeds to analysing the tuneless twittering of an outgoing prime minister who never lifted a finger for the arts.

* More on the Unfinished Dream concert here. 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.

Catching the wave

A recent post described my trekking adventure in Morocco's Atlas Mountains under the headline 'This is most definitely not health and safety territory'. Now via my Berber friend Hassan comes this most definitely not health and safety photo of improvising young surfers in Morocco. Soundtrack for this post is the lovingly remastered Dust to Digital edition of Paul Bowles' 1958 Moroccan field recordings; much of disc 1 was recorded in the Berber enclaves of Tiznit and Tafraout to the south of where the photo was taken.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Black musicians matter

Tomorrow (July 13) the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished presents a concert at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, New York paying tribute to the black women impacted by racial injustice, and the female activists of the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. Among the featured composers are Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, and Courtney Bryan, and the conductors are the miscegenetic duo of John McLaughlin Williams - seen above - and James Blachly. This concert has been given a very specific and tragic relevance by the recent racially motivated killings of blacks and whites in America. But the mission of The Dream Unfinished to allow classical musicians to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement also has a powerful relevance closer to home. Someone with a not inconsiderable profile in the UK classical music industry recently wrote on social media à propos the EU referendum: "I don't think I realised, until two weeks ago, just how much intolerance and stupidity there is in this country", a statement with which a considerable number of the great and good agreed. Yes, of course there is a surfeit of intolerance and stupidity in the world. But I suspect that this social media maven and the others nodding their virtual heads in agreement do not include themselves among the intolerant and stupid. The truth is that not only are we all intolerant and stupid to some degree, but also we are blind to our own shortcomings and generate hate by blaming others without accepting at least some of the blame ourselves. Black lives matter, and no more than in the world of classical music where the sentiment expressed by a leading impresario that "I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors"* still prevails, and where musicians of colour have inexplicably not received the same activist attention as other marginalised groups. Let's hope The Dream Unfinished helps change both the whole intolerant and stupid terrestrial world, and the smaller but equally intolerant world of classical music.

* Other black musicians who suffered from this intolerance include Dean Dixon and Rudolph Dunbar. A biography of Dean Dixon is subtitled Negro at home, maestro abroad. Rudolph Dunbar, who was the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, later in his career allegedly suffered from discrimination at a senior level in the BBC. Header photo via The Dream Unfinished. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Music to unite the soul and discipline the body

Despite predisposition in India's favour, I have to acknowledge that Indian music took me by surprise. I knew neither its nature nor its richness, but here, if anywhere, I found vindication of my conviction that India was the original source... Its purpose is to unite one's soul and discipline one's body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one's breath with the breath of space, one's vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos.
That quote comes from Yehudi Menuhin, and my photo was taken yesterday during a recital of Carnatic music at the Cambridge Live festival. The musicians include* Ranjan Vasudevan, whose day job is a researcher at Cambridge University in X-Ray astronomy. Ranjan has pioneered adapting Carnatic music to the electric guitar, incorporating sliding and Veena bending techniques - SoundCloud samples here. Nearest the camera is Prasanna Sankaran. who is a consultant in respiratory medicine at one of the region's teaching hospitals. Which fits neatly with Yehudi's reference to Indian music to uniting one's breath with the breath of space, and provides yet another auspicious example of the healing power of music.

* The two other musicians are Aniruddh Raghu on violin, undergraduate student in engineering, and Shyam Srivats on kanjira, researcher in pharmacology (visiting from University of California, San Francisco). 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, July 08, 2016

It is surprising that such things still need saying

For this book which is neither light reading nor literary opus,
I wish you just the opposite:
that my grandson, grown to adulthood,
will stumble upon it amidst the family bookshelves,
thumb through it, read a passage or two and then replace it with a shrug,
surprised that in his grandfather's time
such things still needed saying
No that is not a quote from the executive summary of the the Chilcot Report on Britain's participation in the Iraq War. The quote in fact comes from the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf's book In the Name of Identity (Les identités meurtrières), and prefaces the CD booklet for his nephew Ibrahim Maalouf's newly released jazz tribute to the Egyption diva Oum Kalthoum seen above*. The libretto for Kaija Saariaho's opera Love from Afar, directed by Peter Sellars at its 2000 Salzburg premiere, was written by Amin Maalouf, and my recent rewarding reading has included his novels Leo the African and Balthasar’s Odyssey.

Amin Maalouf's In the Name of Identity was written in 1998, but its subtitle Violence and the Need to Belong has a sadly topical resonance. The Chilcot report quite rightly castigates Tony Blair, other servants of state, and the UK's systems of governance, and then goes on to propose lessons for the future. But what future are we looking at with the two predatory superpowers that caused the Iraqi tragedy being led in the near future by a permutation of two from Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump? It is hearts and minds that need changing, not politicians and systems. With the Iraq War having caused to date the deaths of more than 150,000 Iraqi civilians and 179 British service personnel, and the number of displaced persons estimated at more than 3.5 million, it is indeed surprising that such things still need saying.

Ibrahim Maalouf's Kalthoum is released on his own label Mi'ster Productions which is distributed by Universal Music. As a fightback against streaming and downloading Mi'ster Productions pay particular attention to their CD packaging which includes high quality art reproductions - Divine Nude by Ronald Martinez is used for the cover artwork.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, July 07, 2016

This composer is no Mahler but does that really matter?

On Facebook Kevin Scott draws attention to Wilfred Josephs' Requiem with these words: "This magnificent work for chorus, string quintet and orchestra deserves many, many more performances. It is an utterance of faith that embodies a faithful setting of the Kaddish alongside sections of the Catholic requiem mass. Wilfred Josephs' tribute to those who perished at the hands of the Nazis is a must-hear piece!" That accolade prompted me to listen again to Josephs' Symphony suasive No. 5 (Pastoral) performed by the sadly missed David Measham and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra on my 1983 Unicorn LP* seen above.

Wilfred Josephs was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1927 of Russian and English Jewish parents, and died in 1997. He was a prolific composer whose output, like Havergal Brian's, verged on the over-prolific: the Wilfred Josephs catalogue includes 12 symphonies, 22 concertos, operas, chamber music, ballets, an anti-war oratorio, and music for TV, radio, film and the theatre. After studying with Max Deutsch, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Josephs developed a unique compositional style which he described as 'atonal - with tonal implications'. Despite this flirtation with atonality he could spin a good tune; as he explained: "One of the things I do well is write tunes, and if I don't, I feel as if I'm betraying myself. I no longer feel guilty about writing tunes: if I've written a really good one I feel marvellous".

Inevitably this penchant for the tuneful meant Wilfred Josephs' music did not find favour in the Glock/Boulez era, despite his Schoenbergian credentials. Josephs' reputation among the classical music police was also impaired by his success as a composer of incidental music: among his credits were the scores for Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series The Prisoner, the celebrated TV adaption of Robert Graves' I Claudius, and the movies Swallows and Amazons and All Creatures Great and Small. Today the militant advocacy of the music police has shifted from serialism to the less acerbic symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich, both of who have connections, in varying degrees, to film music. In view of this it is surprising that Wilfred Josephs languishes in obscurity; for instance his music has never been performed at the BBC Proms, a concert series that has enthusiastically embraced both popularism and film music in recent years.

Fortunately away from police HQ things apostasy continues, and the reincarnated Lyrita label has recently reissued Josephs' Fifth Symphony and Requiem together with his Variations on a Theme of Beethoven as a 2-for-the-price-of-1 CD transfer seen below. Like his Requiem, Josephs' Fifth Symphony is a must hear piece that hits both the originality and accessibility hot buttons. In a Facebook debate ignited by my recent post about Havergal Brian a music policeman commented "... sorry, Brian is no Mahler". Which is quite true, and similarly Wilfred Josephs is no Mahler. But does that really matter? Do we want to eat nothing but foie gras and drink only premiere cuvée champagne? Is it really a crime to enjoy the occasional pizza and cold beer?

* The sleeve of the Unicorn LP used a specially commissioned painting by the Australian artist Robert Juniper titled Abbey Ruins, Llanthony. Paths converge in the Welsh borders as Llanthony Abbey featured in a very early Overgrown Path post. Another specially commissioned Robert Jupiter painting was used for the original Unicorn LP of Josephs' Requiem, and this is appears on the Lyrita reissue seen above. Special mention should be made of the excellent new essay by Paul Conway for the Lyrita release, parts of this post draw on that essay.

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.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Life - the complete cycle

So Norman Lebrecht has discovered the music of R. Murray Schafer, who sadly has Alzheimer's. It is evidence of the mess that classical music is in that a musician only receives media attention when they have serious health problems, or are involved in a scandalous divorce or child abuse. R. Murray Schafer's book about his twelve ritualistic music dramas is titled Patria: The Complete Cycle. Today the life of a classical musician has become a cycle in which mortality or fallibility is the completing pseudo-event.

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

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Parental advisory - explicit content

My recent post Your cat is a music therapist attracted a large readership; so today I have another rather more edgy post about cats. Almost two years ago our cat Ginger suffered a very serious injury to a rear haunch, caused in the view of the vets that treated him by his leg being trapped in an illegal rabbit snare for more than 24 hours. Due to the miraculous skill of orthopaedic surgeon James Tattersall of the Grove Veterinary Group at Fakenham, Ginger's irreparably damaged ligament was replaced with a synthetic substitute and he regained full mobility. Ginger was ten when injured, so we decided to make him a house cat to protect the injured leg, and he has adapted remarkably well to his new life. However we recently bought him a Mywood cat jacket so he can exercise outdoors on a lead. Before his injury Ginger was an inveterate hunter, and he has started hunting again on his lead. Today he achieved a pretty remarkable result for a cat on a lead, as the photos show. If you are squeamish or Buddhist please do not view them too closely.

Another post told the story of a cat that I met at a Sufi shrine in India. The welfare of cats as well as humans remains a preoccupation of mine; so I commend my virtual friend, musician and author Jayaprakash Satyamurthy's crowdfunded project to start Bangalore's first cat shelter.

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

BBC Radio 3 is stuck in bottom gear

Stuart Armitage has it exactly right when he writes in the Guardian that "Really, the surprise isn’t that Chris Evans has quit Top Gear. The surprise is that he even hosted it in the first place". It was an act of supreme folly by the BBC senior management to expect a programme format tailored to the idiosyncratic personality of one celebrity presenter to achieve the same results under a different celebrity. The departure of Jeremy Clarkson and his sidekicks should have been used for a total creative reworking of the programme. But instead the BBC took the easy and lazy option of neglecting creativity and emphasising celebrity. The BBC is accused - usually with justification - of many sins, including bias, profligacy, and audience chasing. But its biggest sin, a total dearth of creativity, goes almost unremarked. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in BBC Radio 3 under its new controller Alan Davey. I rarely listen to Radio 3 these days. But when I do I find nothing to strongly like or dislike about it. The Radio 3 schedule is a creative desert; in fact it is no more than musical blancmange. There are many parallels between the Top Gear fiasco and BBC Radio 3. Not least because Alan Davey's only big new idea is to bring back the Pied Piper programme format. I had feared it would be Paul Gambaccini presenting the reincarnated Pied Piper. But now I suspect it will be Chris Evans.

Photo shows Zez Confrey, composer of Kitten on the Keys and Dizzy Fingers with his wheels, and comes via Wikipedia. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 04, 2016

We are not binary beings

The gigantic echo chamber that is social media is resonating with far too much unhelpful bombast from both EU referendum camps. So it is with some trepidation that I am posting on the subject today. But this quote from - of all people - Boris Johnson caught my eye in yesterday's Telegraph:
It was wrong of the Government to offer the public a binary choice on the EU...
It caught my eye not because I have any sympathy at all for Boris Johnson's politics, but because it reflects the dangers of dualism. Norman Perryman reminded us of those dangers some time ago when he explained: "We are by nature analogue (def. "a continuous spectrum of values") beings, consisting of fluid organic substances." Too often today - especially on social media - we forget that humankind holds a continuous and fluid spectrum of values that cannot be forcibly polarised into a tick in one of two boxes, just as the true sound of music cannot be reduced to a 0 or 1. The dangers of the binary mindset were first highlighted many centuries ago in the Rig Veda, and that very wise being Jonathan Harvey quoted from the Vedic canonical text (10.129) in the score of his Bhakti for ensemble and electronics:
There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realms of space nor the sky which is beyond.
The photo was taken by me outside the Ben Youssef mosque in Marrakech and shows the soles of the Moroccan slippers known as babouches drying in the sun. It is used here as a Rorschach inkblot test, so read into it what you will. I cannot say for certain why I used it; but the image may have sprung to mind as non-dualism in the form of waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being - is central to Sufism as well as Vedanta, and the Ben Youssef mosque is a Sufi shrine. Or it may have been because of the CD from Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) titled Footsteps in the Light, or simply because Islam and the EU referendum are, quite wrongly inseparable. The Ben Youssef mosque, Sufism and Yusuf Islam are all mentioned in my 2008 post Avoid three kinds of master.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Remembering the first woman to conduct in the Festival Hall

A CBC story on the new all-women Allegra Chamber Orchestra describes it quite rightly as one of the few all-female orchestras in the world. That story provides a convenient reason for me to turn the spotlight on a forgotten woman musician who formed one of the first all-female orchestra back in the 1930s, and who later became the first woman to conduct in London's Royal Festival Hall. Kathleen Riddick was born in 1907 and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and the Salzburg Mozarteum. In the 1930s she formed the London Women's String Orchestra which later became the multi-gender Riddick String Orchestra. The BBC onlinearchive gives details of a 1939 broadcast by the London Women's String Orchestra of arrangements of Rameau, while the Riddick String Orchestra was active until shortly before its founder died in 1973. The Riddick String Orchestra was held in high esteem, and in 1951 Kathleen Riddick conducted it with Dennis Brain as soloist in the premiere of Gordon Jacob's Horn Concerto in the Wigmore Hall.

During the war years travel restrictions meant foreign maestros were in short supply, so Kathleen Riddick had the opportunity to conduct the BBC Symphony, BBC Scottish and BBC Northern (now Philharmonic) and London Symphony orchestras. She lived in Ashtead, Surrey for much of her life and in 1932 founded the multi-gender Surrey String Players, which in 1945 expanded to become the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra. The photo shows her in 1949 conducting the Surrey Philharmonic with Elisabeth Schumann as soloist in the since demolished Epsom Baths Hall*; the number of women in that orchestra would be remarkable even in 2016, particularly in Vienna. Over the years guest conductors of the Surrey Phil included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Arthur Bliss, and soloists have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jacqueline du Pré, Paul Tortelier, Steven Isserlis, Nigel Kennedy and Evelyn Glennie. In 1951 the Surrey Philharmonic played in the newly opened Royal Festival Hall, and Kathleen Riddick became the first woman to conduct an orchestra there. Today such an event would trigger a media feeding frenzy of epic proportions, but things were very different in the past. As Kathleen Riddick's entry in A Historical Dictionary of British Women reminds us:

Her colleagues and players regarded her as a thoroughly professional music director, and she is remembered not so much as Britain's first successful woman conductor, but simply as a good conductor.
* I grew up in Surrey and the very first classical concert I attended was in Epsom Baths Hall in the 1950s when the Surrey Philharmonic played Holst's The Planets. Header photo taken is from the orchestra's archives. 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.