Wednesday, August 31, 2016

We also need more black conductors at the Proms


Good journalism changes the way people think. Bad journalism panders to the way people think to win readers. Yesterday the Guardian indulged in bad journalism by jumping on the we need more women conductors bandwagon. Of course we need more women in senior positions in classical music. On An Overgrown Path was one of the first to say that ten years ago. But as a commenter on the Guardian editorial astutely observes "the issue is much more complicated than a call of 'We need more women conductors!'” Quite wrongly a complex of historical factors and entrenched attitudes has prevented women taking senior roles. Thankfully that is now changing, but the cultural correction will take time. It can be argued quite convincingly that the correction should have been instigated earlier. But it wasn't and we can't change history.

What makes the Guardian editorial particularly bad journalism is that it aims at the easy target of the unacceptable gender balance in classical music, but totally ignores other imbalances such as ethnicity. The editorial trumpets that just eight BBC Proms out of 75 this year are conducted by women, but overlooks the even more startling statistic that in more than 2500 Promenade concerts there have been just three black conductors - all men - and the last one was back in 2003. Again, quite wrongly a complex of historical factors and entrenched attitudes have prevented black musicians taking senior positions in classical music, and, as for women, the essential correction will take time. But the difference is that the correction has not even started for black conductors. Now over to the crusading liberal journalists at the Guardian...

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shorten the music supply chain and not the concerts


Questioning 'fairly standard practices' is now well established in classical music, with the most recent example being Stephen Hough's questioning of concert duration and formal dress. But like many things in classical music, selectivity is the name of the game when it comes to asking questions. There is an open season on standard practices such as formal dress, the abolition of which results in nothing more than a cosmetic change. Questioning more sacred practices such as unamplified sound - as Jonathan Harvey did in an interview with me - offends the music thought police and, as a result, provokes little constructive debate.

But there are some standard practices that you must never question if you want to continue working in classical music, and these are the practices hidden from view in the music supply chain. In a friendly Facebook discussion about the last minute appearance of cellist Alexey Stadler at last week's BBC Prom, Richard Bratby pointed out quite correctly that the replacement of an indisposed musician by another from the same management agency is "fairly standard practice". HarrisonParrott getting first dibs at providing a replacement for Truls Mørk at the Proms is just one minor example of the standard practices that may be mutually convenient but should not escape scrutiny. Alexey Stadler arrived at Heathrow four hours before the Prom started. We do not know, and presumably will never know, if another suitable cellist without a HarrisonParrott contract was available closer to home to play the Shostakovich Concerto.

We are told repeatedly that classical music needs bigger audiences. But that is only a partial truth. Because classical music only needs a bigger audience if it is to continue to pay for its current inflated supply chain costs. There is an alternative, which is to stop chasing bigger audiences and instead take cost out of an overly complex supply chain. (The same logic applies to the appeals for more funding - cut supply chain costs and the same funding goes further). Demands for shorter concerts and informal dress spin well, but making the music supply chain shorter and more cost efficient does not.

The supply chain is the convoluted path along which music travels from musician to audience; via studios, mastering/editing facilities, record companies, concert promoters, management agents, embedded journalists, PR consultants, distribution platforms, concert venues, etc etc. Every link adds cost, and music distribution chains are getting longer, more complex and therefore more costly, and those costs can only be covered by bigger audiences. Supply chain cost inflation comes in many forms, and one of these is intermediation.



Intermediation happens when middle-feeders are interposed between supplier (musician) and consumer (audience) in the supply chain. One example in classical music is the numerous consultants who are paid handsomely to undertake enigmatic tasks such as 'building social equity of classical musicians through the fusion of traditional and new media'. Consultants are just one manifestation of intermediation, another is management agents. As can be seen above, Stephen Hough is managed by none other than HarrisonParrott, a very professional agency but also one of the toughest negotiators in the business. It represents many of the biggest names and the header graphic shows just a small sample of the 181 leading musicians signed to it.

The other most powerful management agencies have artist rosters of around the same size, so some rough and ready maths are revealing. This year there are 75 BBC Proms each needing a conductor and soloists; so let's say there is a requirement for around 200 star musicians. To meet that requirement the four leading management agents have more than 600 star musicians signed to them. Which means the probability of a musicians getting a gig at the Proms or any other major venue is significantly reduced if they are not signed to one of the big agencies. There is a clear 'us' and 'them' divide. For instance as seen below, the 2016 BBC Young Musician winner cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has already joined Jaap van Zweden, Alan Gilbert and Antonio Pappano at IMG Artists and, doubtless, in time will join them on the concert platform.



Agents also represent orchestras. For instance HarrisonParrott's rival Askonas Holt represents no less than 38 orchestras. (See footer graphic for just some of these orchestras.) Among them is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when it tours. Askonas Holt also manages Simon Rattle, and Rattle and the BPO appear together at the BBC Proms on Sept. 2nd & 3rd as an Askonas Holt tour package - see below. And it is not irrelevant that Askonas Holt also represents Rattle's post-Berlin orchestra, the London Symphony. (Refreshingly, the new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who gave an acclaimed Prom last week, is not managed by one of the 800-pound gorilla agencies.) Intermediation is further extending its tentacles, with the major management agencies offering consulatancy services. For instance HarrisonParrott provides consultancy services to the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in the form of "ongoing consultancy including the development of statement projects, strengthening GSO's international touring, and leveraging its international brand through marketing, PR, recordings and digital initiatives". And management agencies have even started record labels as joint ventures, albeit with limited success.


Of course we need agents, because they perform the essential task of bringing musicians and audiences together. But that does not absolve them from close scrutiny. Like new technologies, all intermediation should be assumed guilty until proven otherwise, and not vice versa. The commission earned by top management agencies is a well-kept secret despite often being paid by public funding, but probably adds around 15% to the already large fees paid to celebrity musicians. And those large fees need more audience bums on seats to pay for them. Agents have considerable control over both the financial and artistic agendas, and their practices are largely hidden from public view. That control can be abused and has been abused. In 1955 following an FBI investigation, the United States Department of Justice charged Columbia Concerts Corporation (the forerunner of Columbia Artists Management) with restraint of interstate trade and commerce in the booking of artists, and also with monopolizing organized audience associations. The agency and three other defendants pleaded no contest and were forced to release their monopoly position. In the past there has also been clear evidence of institutionalised racism in the industry's then most powerful agency.

Classical music is overflowing with experts. But they preach nothing other than spending more to attract bigger audiences, which invariably adds cost without growing the audience. As an example, informed estimates put the cost of Universal Classic's failed Sinfini Music website at several million pounds. The value of the UK recorded classical music market is approximately £20 million and let's assume that Sinfini cost around £1 million a year to run. Which means that towering monument to the folly of intermediation flushed 5% of the total value of the UK recorded classical music market down the toilet in a year. Classical music is about nothing more than supplying great music from performer to audience with minimal intervention en route. The most efficient ideal supply chains are lean and mean with minimal intermediation, as supermarkets have proved. In contrast the classical music supply chain suffers from excessive levels of intermediation and is riddled with self-interest and hidden costs. The experts are quite right when they say classical music must change. But it is the music supply chain that must change, not the duration of concerts.



All graphics are based on material on the public pages of management agency websites. 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, August 29, 2016

Streaming of a very different kind

Shiva dances, creating the world and destroying it, his large rhythms conjure up vast aeons of time, and his movements have a relentless magical power of incantation. Our European allegories are banal and pointless by comparison with these profound works, devoid of the trappings of symbolism, concentrating on the essential, the plastic.
Those words are from Jacob Epstein's Let there be sculpture. Purba Dhara (An Eastern Stream), which includes contemporary Carnatic music, takes place at 6:00pm today (Aug 29) in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. The fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā tells us in Sanskrit that Evam paramparā-prāptam, which translates as 'In this way, by handing from master to pupil, the knowledge is passed down'. It is then explained that sa kāleneha mahatā yogo nastah parantapa - 'However in the course of time this succession became broken'. In Vedānta a mantra is a vibrating sound with the potency to liberate the mind. This wide definition extends beyond the familiar chanted mantras to include any sound that can liberate the mind; so within this definition falls every masterwork of art music. But the Bhagavad-gītā then tells us that if the potent sound is not passed down through a recognized succession it will not be effective. Indian art music is the product of a line of oral transmission that originated in the Vedic texts, passed through the Imperial age of the Gupta dynasties in the fourth to sixth centuries CE and was then transmitted through generations of guilds of hereditary musicians to be experienced by 21st-century audiences like the one in Cambridge this evening. This brief overview of the Eastern stream is conflated from my posts 'Indian music is not an art, but life itself' and 'Classical music is backing the wrong kind of streaming'.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Were there no sound, how could there be silence?

Conceptually, we think that sound is sound and silence is silence. The two seem neatly separated and distinct - in fact opposite of each other. But this is only how we think, how we conceptualize. This is not how Reality is perceived, before we put everything into neat, nicely labeled (but deceptive) little packages.
We think there only has to be sound for there to be sound. We overlook that there must also be silence for there to be sound. And because of sound, there is silence. Were there no sound, how could there be silence?
Before you strike a bell, sound is already here. After you strike the bell, the sound is here. When the sound fades and dies away, the sound is still here. The sound is not just the sound but the silence, too. And the sound is the sound. This is what is actually perceived before we parse everything out into this and that, into "myself" and "what I hear".
The sound of the bell is inseparable from everything that came before and that will come after, as well as from everything that appears now. This includes your eardrum, which vibrates in response to it. It includes the air, which pulses with varying waves of pressure in response to it. It includes the stick that strikes the bell. It includes the metallurgists, past and present, and those who learned to extract metal from ore and those who fashioned the bell. And it includes that ancient furnace, that supernova obliterated long ago in which this metal formed. Remove any of these - indeed, remove anything at all - and there can be no sound of the bell. The sound of the bell is thus not "the sound of the bell." It is the entire Universe.
That passage from 'Buddhism is not what you think' by Steve Hagen is a pithy exposition of the essence of Zen. It also explores the indivisibility of sound and silence, a concept that Zen practitioner John Cage famously explored. Moreover it touches on the principle of oneness of being that informs the waḥdat al-wujūd teachings of the twelfth-century Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi and the canonical texts of Advaita Vedānta. Which leads on to the centrality of vibrations, and ever onwards to how subatomic physics explains that one object can affect another irrespective of temporal and spatial distance between them.

Parallels have been drawn between James Joyce's non-linear stream of consciousness prose and the core Zen practice of mindfulness, which involves observing and noting one’s thoughts and emotions exactly as they arise. Toru Takemitsu - yet another seriously underrated composer - was influenced both by Zen and James Joyce's novels. Takemitsu's 'A Way A Lone' for string quartet takes its title and inspiration from the enigmatic ending of Joyce's 'Finnegans Wake' - "The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the". Recordings of 'A Way A Lone' are as elusive as the meaning of Zen. The one above, which is now deleted, by the Tokyo String Quartet couples the Takemitsu with a rare performance of Samuel Barber's String Quartet, Op. 11 from which the celebrated Adagio for Strings is taken, and Britten's String Quartet No. 2.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

You've got a friend


Congratulations to cellist Alexey Stadler - seen above - who gave a fine performance as a last minute replacement for an indisposed Truls Mørk in Thursday's BBC Prom. Exclusive inside information including the time of the flight that brought the - I quote - "little-known" Alexey Stadler in to Heathrow on the afternoon of the concert was provided by Norman Lebrecht. But another part of the backstory was missing from Slipped Disc, so I will provide it in the interest of completeness. The 'little-known' Alexey Stadler is managed by super agent HarrisonParrott who also manage some very well-known artists including the BBC Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor Sakari Oramo. And among the other artists they manage is the indisposed Truls Mørk. Alexey Stadler undoubtedly deserves his accolades. But it does help when you've got friends in the right places. As another 'unknown' musician found out eleven years ago.

* Photo via Tchaikovsky Competition. 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, August 26, 2016

Mr Stokowski going shoeless into the meditation room

...Philadeplphia would be shocked to see Mr Stokowski going shoeless into the meditation room. He played a lot of his trial records for us the other night and they were wonderful...
That extract* comes from a letter written by Erma Williams, who was the sister of Jiddu Krishnamurti's close associate and purported lover Rosalind Rajagopal. It dates from 1928 when Krishnamurti was still being promoted by the Theosophical Society as the 'vehicle' of the expected World Teacher, and it refers to Leopold Stokowski's attendance at the Theosophical Society's summer camp at Erde Castle in Holland. Theosophy has attracted many musicians including John Foulds, Cyril Scott, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Dane Rudhyar. Mary Lutyens, mother of the composer Elizabeth Lutyens, was a fervent disciple of Krishnamurti and also his editor and biographer, although her daughter developed a strong aversion to the spiritual movement. Another celebrated musician who embraced Theosophy was Alexander Scriabin, and in an example of Theosophic convergence Stokowski gave the US premiere of the Poem of Ecstacy in Philadelphia in 1916. It would indeed be shocking to find one of today's thoroughly modern celebrity maestros associating themselves with a spiritual movement, let alone shedding their Louis Vuitton footwear to enter a meditation room.

* Extract is from Radha Rajagopal Sloss' book Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti. Header photo, which fortuitously does not show Stoki's feet, 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.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

What we need is classical music radicalism


If classical music spends much more time debating what audiences want and don't want, it will disappear up its own rear orifice. For decades established religions have chased congregations by diluting their essential message. The hard facts give the lie to that strategy: in 2015 for the first time ever attendance at Church of England services dropped below one million. But radical religious groups have bucked the trend. In the States evangelical Christians have retained their share of the population, while mainline Protestants and Catholics lost 3.5 percent and 3 percent of their population share respectively between 2008 and 2015.

What we need is classical music radicalism. Classical music is about making great, challenging and rewarding music. It is not about chasing audiences. If the audience comes, that is great. If it doesn't come and a financial crisis ensues, the current bloated celebrity-centric business model will have to go through a painful (for some) but much-needed correction. During the 1793/4 Reign of Terror in France, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Think about it...

Read about Jean-Luc Fafchamps' classical music radicalism 'Sufi Word YZ3Z2Z1S2' for soloists, ensemble, and electronics in From post-modern to post-everything. No review sample used. 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, August 24, 2016

Zorba's trance


Quite soon I will be back in Crete. When I arrive there with my wife we go straight to Houdetsi to catch the last concert in Ross Daly and Kelly Thoma's Labyrinth Summer Workshop series. Then we travel to Agios Nikolaos to hook up with Panos from the Greek Music Shop who supplies me with CDs faster and cheaper than Amazon's UK operation. My most recent purchase from Panos is Osi Hara ‘houn Ta Poulia (Όση Χαρά ‘χουν Τα Πουλιά) on which Εvgenia Damavoliti-Toli sings Ross Daly's settings of Cretan contemporary poets and the great 16th century Cretan bard Vitsentzos Kornaros. A post here last year about the contemporary modal music movement led by Ross Daly lamented how Cretan music has been stereotyped. In the post I went on to explain how a rich mix ranging from Greek Orthodox Christianity to Zen Buddhism and Bektashi Sufism informs Cretan culture, and that compelling universalism pervades this outstanding new release.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

When will they learn that apps cannot replace animateurs?


The recondite MusiCB3 blog about the music collections at Cambridge University has a contribution from Margaret Jones about the the University Library's resources documenting children’s responses to classical music. Unsurprisingly David Munrow features prominently in Margaret's article which includes the photo above of the Pied Piper with his wife Gill and their instrument collection*. Just before reading the article I had listened to the newly released CD Oregon Live in New Orleans, which is a transcription of an NPR broadcast of a gig Oregon played in February 1978. Readers will know of my admiration for the work of both David Munrow, and of the innovative ensemble Oregon and their predecessor Codona. David Munrow died in 1976 and two years later Oregon's visionary multi-percussionist and sitarist Collin Walcott - seen below - was killed in a car crash while the band was on tour in East Germany. Today David Munrow is remembered as a an early music specialist, and Collin Walcott is remembered as a world music/jazz fusion pioneer. But forcing their huge talents into neat little genre boxes belittles their genius, because both led large audiences on to new musical discoveries. Margaret Jones' thoughtful essay on the importance of exposing young people to great music is titled 'In a child's mind'. The young and not so young are waiting to be led. But where are today's Pied Pipers? When will classical music's multitudinous experts learn that apps cannot replace animateurs?


* This photo is new to me and the caption says the following: Photographer unknown, please contact music@lib.cam.ac.uk if you have further information. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No comps used in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, August 22, 2016

So let's talk about public funding for classical music


Following the Olympic success of British athletes, Judy Grahame - employer M&C Saatchi PLC, turnover £169.37 million and profits £17.2 million - and Richard Morrison - employer Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, turnover £1.64 billion, profits £146 million - and others among classical music's great and good want to talk about public funding. Yes, by all means let's do that; but we must not forget that talking about funding means more than just talking about increased funding for classical music. Because if you simply increase funding without making other changes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

So let's talk about another aspect of pubic funding - transparency. Lack of public funding is not the only problem. Inequality of funding within classical music is also a serious but less newsworthy problem. As has been pointed out here before, the annual income of £26,000 to £37,000 for a rank and file London musician is in the public domain. However the salary of their conductor is not, but single concert fees for a Rolex maestro in London are estimated at £20,000. And that inequality between celebrity and rank and file musicians is not the only problem: because around a further 15% (£3000 per concert) goes to the maestro's management agent with an additional payment often being made to the tour management for touring orchestras.

London based high profile ensembles receive a significant portion of available public funding for classical music. Because of an institutionalied lack of transparency, accurate information on how that funding is disbursed within ensembles is not available. But an informed estimate suggests that up to 30% of the total publicly funded subsidy for a London concert goes to just three parties, the conductor, his agent and the tour management, with the remaining 70% being divided between up to 100 less fortunate participants. As I said in my previous post, classical music must make the case for increased funding. But before doing so it must put its own house in order. For orchestras and other institutions in the UK receiving public funding, musician and agents fees for a single appearance of more than £2500 should be declared, as should annual retainers of more than £75,000. Furthermore public funders should make it a condition that all fees above £2500 for a single appearance and above £75,000 annually should be funded 50/50 by public and private sources.

But nothing will change. Because the knee-jerk retweets of pleas for post-Olympic increases in classical music funding come from those who benefit most from the current unequal distribution. So I am not holding my breath waiting for my proposal to be shared on social media by classical music's great and good.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

No more sour grapes please


There are indeed disturbing inequalities between sports and arts funding in the UK. But before classical music's great and good serve up another round of sour grapes on the subject they should reflect on two points. The first is that a little more positive recognition of the truly remarkable achievements of our sportswomen and men at the Olympics would win classical music some badly needed friends beyond its own vocal mutual admiration society. The second thing to reflect on is the following vignette. I have been a committed supporter of classical music for fifty years and rarely watch sport. But the performances of Laura Trott and Jason Kenny - seen above - and many other athletes moved and inspired me far more than any performance I have seen by the current generation of lavishly remunerated celebrity classical musicians. Yes, we need to make the case for increased arts funding. But let's make it in a positive way.

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Where there is growth there is life

Buddhism was a matter of spiritual experience, and spiritual experience was something that could be put into words only to a very limited extent. The Buddha had, therefore, confined himself to showing his disciples how they might experience the Dharma for themselves. he had not laid down a system of philosophy, for this would have been to create a dogma and thus prevent individual development. No formulation of the Buddhas doctrine was final. He himself had been obliged to have recourse to the 'language' of his day, and had he lived later would doubtless have expressed himself different. To cling to outmoded forms of spiritual life and thoughts were disastrous. Spiritual things could not be 'fixed'. Where there was growth there was life, and spiritual growth depended upon our rediscovering spiritual truths for ourselves instead of trying simply to 'take over' the existing conceptual formulations of these truths. Through this process of spiritual growth the individual would become a link between the past and the present; history would become part of life, rather than an object of scholarly trust or blind religious revelation.
That pliant interpretation of the Buddha's teachings contrasts sharply with the restrictive dogmatism of other great faiths, and indeed contrasts sharply with the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism which is fast becoming a spiritual theme park. The quotation comes from Facing Mount Kanchenjunga by the English Buddhist teacher and writer Sangharakshita (formerly Dennis Lingwood) who founded the revisionist Triratna Buddhist community. The principle of where there is growth there is life finds expression in the recent redevelopment by architects Walter & Cohen of the Triratna community's Vajrasana retreat centre at Walsham-le-Willows, Suffolk; see photo above* and articles via this and this link. Composer Edmund Rubbra had a life-long interest in comparative religion and metaphysics, and briefly practiced Buddhism before returning to Catholicism. In 1947 Arnold Bax's brother Clifford wrote the BBC radio play The Buddha for which Rubbra provided the incidental music, which became his Suite, The Buddha, Op. 64 - see recording below.



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Saturday, August 20, 2016

I remembered I had a tape recorder of sorts and turned it on


A codicil to recent discussion about the benefits of simple microphone techniques is provided by the album above. After playing a gig at Hull University in 1967 folk guitarist Graham Davey paid a visit on a friend living in a university hall of residence. John Pilgrim, who was the friend, takes up the story in the sleeve essay:
The immediate greetings out of the way tea was made - brewed not rolled - and Davey took out his guitar and started playing. After a few numbers I remembered I had a tape recorder of sorts and turned it on. One or two mildly inebriated students had followed Davey Graham into my room. A few more drifted in as the sound of Graham's guitar penetrated the room.
The tape recorder of sorts was in fact a domestic mono Philips reel-to-reel machine. Fortunately the tape spool remained in John Pilgrim's possession and the recording was commercially released on CD as Davey Graham ‎– After Hours (At Hull University, 4th February 1967) in 1997 by Rollercoaster Records and remains available. The After Hours album has achieved legendary status because after cleaning up the master tape produced surprisingly passable sound and captured Davey Graham's brilliant guitar technique without the artifice of a recording studio. The track list, which includes takes on Bach's Bourée in E minor, Art Blakey's Buhaina Chant, the gavotte from Robert de Visée's D minor suite, and a medley of She Moved Thru' the Bizarre and Blue Raga, reflects his eclectic tastes.

Davey Graham was an important figure in the British folk music revival. The DADGAD guitar tuning was created by him to play music he had heard in Morocco on the oud. His open tunings inspired many guitarists including Nick Drake, and his style influenced a generation of musicians including Pentangle and Fairport Convention and contributed to the early development of world music. In age where music is multi-miced and Pro Tooled to death the last paragraph of John Pilgrim's sleeve note delivers an important message:
Here is a CD for people who like music without pre-definitions and without pre-packaging. The recording and its survival involved a whole series of accidents. Enjoy the results.
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Friday, August 19, 2016

New technology must not supplant old technology


A comment on my post Should we change the way classical audiences listen? by MarkAMeldon extolling the virtues of pre-stereo recordings of Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hans Knappertsbusch and Rafael Kubelik ends with the cryptic question of back to mono anyone? Which prompted me to listen again to the Griller Quartet's mono recording of Ernest Bloch's four string quartets which I first praised On An Overgrown Path eleven years ago. Pau Casals declared that "The best composer of our times is Ernest Bloch" and the Griller's interpretations provide strong support for that controversial claim. Seen above is one of the original LP releases, and below is the now deleted 2004 CD transfer. These 1954 Decca recordings were produced by the late Peter Andry who later became general manager of EMI's International Classical Division, where he was my boss in the late 1970s. Forget about the old technology used to make these recordings, because on a monitor quality audio system they equal or surpass both in sound and performance anything produced in the digital age. And there are good simple common sense reasons why.

It is is a clear sign of inverted priorities that today's classical music practitioners are better versed in understanding the relationship between websites, box office, and customer relationship management software than in understanding elementary physics - aka old technology. Sound and therefore music is vibrating energy. A musical instrument does no more than produce complex vibrations; the faster the vibration the higher the pitch, and the larger the amplitude of the vibration the louder the music. One of the most basic laws of physics is the Law of the Conservation of Energy, which states that energy - which includes the vibrations that are music - cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.

Great music stirs the soul when the energy produced by the performers is transferred directly to the listener. All recording technologies from wax cylinders to digital files change the vibrating energy of live music into a storable form - vinyl LP or digital file - and then back again into analogue sound that is reproduced through speakers or headphones. The shorter and simpler the path from music source to replay transducer (speakers/headphones), the more efficiently and effectively the energy is transferred. Which is why live music always stirs the soul more powerfully than recorded music. But virtually every new technology fervently embraced by classical music lengthens and complicates the energy path, which in technical terminology means it becomes more lossy. That is why, given the right replay conditions, a vinyl LP sounds better than a CD; because the energy in the analogue wave form of the record groove has undergone less corrupting transformation than the heavily manipulated digital file. And that is why simple stereo recordings sound better than the lossy manipulation involved in multiple microphone recordings.

But let's avoid this thread degenerating into an unproductive analogue versus digital argument, because digital technologies are here to stay. However new technology must supplement and not supplant old technology, and the common sense rule that the more lossy the energy path, the more the power of the music diminishes applies way beyond the recording studio. Virtually every one of the silver bullets proposed for rejuvenating classical music - snackable content, egregious radio presenters, dumbed down websites etc etc - have the opposite effect to that intended, simply because they put obstacles in the energy path between musician and listener. If classical music really wants to engage new audiences it needs to spend a lot less time understanding customer relationship management software and a lot more time understanding energy paths.



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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Music from beyond the viral circle


Tomorrow the annual festival celebrating trance music and the role of women in the Sufi hadra tradition opens in Essaouira, Morocco. My recent photo essay explored how the workshops linked to this festival are banging the drum for oppressed women musicians. Much needed progress has been made towards giving women their rightful place in art music's celebrity culture. So it would be good if more attention was now paid to those women who make music in very difficult circumstances far beyond the reach of charmed viral circles.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Beware of classical music's viral circles


That is Rebecca Saunders in the photo. She is one of the foremost living British composers and I have been an admirer of her music since I broadcast her Rubricare for baroque string orchestra in 2007 on Future Radio. Now fellow composer Neil Tòmas Smith has drawn attention to the neglect of Rebecca Saunders' music at the BBC Proms - her works have received just one Proms performance and she has received no Proms commissions. This neglect in London may be because of her long-term residency in Berlin, which would be wrong if that is indeed the case. But I suspect there is a more insidious reason. She keeps a notably low media profile, which means a Google search for 'rebecca saunders composer' does not lead to a personal website or social media account. This reticence contrasts sharply with classical music's many viral circles in which members of self-interested cliques talk up each others work to mutual benefit. Musicians should be judged solely on their music. But making a lot of noise on social media creates an illusion of importance, and that viral circle opens many important doors. Including, apparently, those of the Albert Hall.

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Classical music should stop talking down to its audiences


The BBC spin machine works on the premise that anything sells classical music except the music itself. So after some transparently contrived brouhaha about applause between movements at the Proms we have BBC News reporting the pronuncement by Stephen Hough - he plays at the Proms next week - about shorter classical shows. (Did they mean concerts?) Shorter classical concerts are just another way of talking down to the audience - young and not so young. The first step towards consolidating the overlooked but vital existing classical audience and to attracting a new audience is to stop talking down to both groups. As Virgil Thomson told us: "Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information".

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How a spiritual leader became a happy camper


After attending the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama in Ladakh, India two years ago I wrote somewhat cynically about the luxurious new Chamba Camp 'glamping' (glamour camping) site set up by the Tibetan Buddhist Thiksey Monastery. Last week the Dalai Lama delivered another teaching in Ladakh and while there he visited Chamba Camp Thiksey for a photo op - see above*. The website of the monastery endorsed tourist destination describes how guests relax in individually designed tents, with en-suite bathrooms, private decks, crisp linen, complete with the services of their very own butler. But this heavenly hedonism does not come cheap: three nights for two people in the cheapest 'tent suite' costs 175560 ruppees (£2034), or if you want the real deal three nights in a presidential tent suite - see photo below - will set you back 19751 rupees (£2289). To put this into perspective the average annual income in India is 242155 rupees (£2800).

The Dalai Lama has described himself as a simple monk. But a post last year highlighted the rock star ticket prices for his London teaching (£90.25 for the top ticket, £24.75 for the cheapest); while elsewhere it is reported that his private collection of fifteen Rolex watches is worth an estimated £12 million. His Holiness has done wonderful work for the Tibetan cause and is a worthy Nobel laureate, and for me Buddhism in its less flamboyant manifestations comes closer to the Truth than any of the other perennial traditions. But the teaching that speaks to me more and more comes from Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said: "Hinduism, Buddhism, or Christianity... are all organized beliefs with their propaganda, conversion, proselytism, compulsion, and so on. Is there any truth in organized religion? It may engulf, enmesh truth, but the organized religion itself is not true. Therefore, organized religion is false, it separates man from man".



Header photo comes from KelKhang Rinpoche's Facebook page. 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, August 15, 2016

Should we change the way classical audiences listen?


Does the sound matter anymore? Well it does seem to matter, if the large and mainly positive response to my recent critique of the BBC Proms broadcasts is anything to go by. One reader's response extended comment is being posted below because it provides a different and worthwhile perspective on the tension between broadcast/recorded sound and what a listener hears in the cheaper seats of a large concert hall. The main thrust of my post was that the non-immersive sound heard from those cheaper seats is an obstacle to engaging new audiences, whereas the reader using the pseudonym Iarful comes from the opposite direction and argues that the problem is the artificially immersive sound heard in today's broadcasts and recordings.

It may be the same difference, but Iarful's viewpoint is important. His/her reminder of the Quad high-end audio brand's strapline of "The closest approach to the original sound" raises the important question of what is the objective of a classical recording or broadcast? Is it to faithfully reproduce the sound heard in a good seat in the hall? Or is it to create a sales/ratings maximising immersive sonic experience? In his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term 'pseudo-event' for events created specifically for the media. In recent years the objective of faithfully reproducing the sound heard in the hall has been replaced by the goal of creating an instantly gratifying sonic pseudo-event. Anyone with access to recordings of Proms from the first decades of stereo relays can easily confirm this. Auditioning these archive recordings - see list below for those I used - immediately reveals a sea change in the BBC sound balance. In the 1970s the orchestra was more distant (but not too distant), the sound had space around it, the stereo image was more stable, there was depth as well as width in the soundstage, and solo instruments were not spotlit. The bottom line is that the archive sound is less fatiguing and more truthful to what is heard in the hall, and the differences are not subtle - they are very striking.

That slogan of "The closest approach to the original sound" deserves further consideration. When Quad founder Peter Walker came up with the strapline the reference sound was what was heard in a good seat in the concert hall. But as has been explained before, the reference for the majority of listeners is now the up close and personal sound of headphones. So soon priorities will invert, and although the closest approach to the reference sound will remain the goal, the reference sound will change to the immersive experience of recorded/broadcast music. When this happens, to attract new audiences digital technologies will have to be used in concert halls to provide a more immersive sound. But that heretical development could be avoided if audiences are taught the lost art of listening and educated to the nuances of concert hall sound.

So do we change the sound or do we change the way audiences listen? There is no doubt that changing the way audiences listen should be the first priority. But what is very puzzling is that among all the agonising over ageing and shrinking classical audiences, no consideration has been given to teaching audiences the art of listening; in fact quite the opposite. Music education for children is vitally important, but so is music education for adults - particularly young adults. Where are today's equivalent of programmes such as David Munrow's Pied Piper, André Previn's Music Night, Anthony Hopkin's Talking About Music, and Leonard Bernstein's televised Young Person's Concerts which introduced millions to the subtle art of classical music?

Iarful also makes the important point that overlooked recording formats such as ambisonics and binaural may be the key to providing immersive sound without turning recordings/broadcasts into sonic pseudo-events - that header image comes from a YouTube video of how to make a binaural dummy head. Again it is puzzling that given classical music's new technology obsession - streaming, downloads etc - so little attention has been paid to alternative recording formats. But I have said enough; here is Iarful's comment:

I was grateful to see this reminder of the artificiality of the current Proms sound (especially as it is informed by a former professional's understanding of the reasons behind it, both technical and artistic) and mainly wanted to add a reflection from the perspective of musicians, to complement the article's concern with the audience. But with reference to kirkmc's comment, I remember (vividly) my first exposure, well over 30 years ago, to an ambisonic recording of a concert (reproduced without height). My first reaction was that it sounded almost like mono - because hall sound does from most seats after the artificial conditioning of stereo reproduction. My ears soon adjusted to the much greater realism of course and were astonished at the end when I heard applause from all around me followed by people talking in the row behind, their seats tipping up, etc. Stereo sounded absolutely pathetic for a long time afterwards! As far as I am concerned the 'near-mono' of ambisonic rules OK - except that, sadly, it still doesn't, decades later.

A week ago I was involved in a discussion on reproduced sound which included two professional pianists. The first was horrified to learn how the Proms sound picture is constructed in the control room from multiple close microphones with artificial reverberation, etc. - just deeply shocked. The other teaches in a music faculty which also runs a sound engineer course, the students on which hone their skills by recording concerts or rehearsals at the musicians' request. She related how there is also the option of recording without the students' help, where a pair of microphones descend from the ceiling and the digital recorder starts. She said that very often she prefers the results produced by this set-up. When I said how I often felt with modern reproduced sound it was impossible for the ear to focus its attention as it can in real life, to concentrate on this or that strand in the music or a particular performer (no doubt caused by the ultimate lack of coherence you describe, and in the early days of digital by its poor performance at low level) so that there was a sort of barrier beyond which one could not hear, she agreed enthusiastically: "Of course!" For all the limitations it may have, the 2 microphone set-up will give a truthful account of balance between the different musicians and just the sort of coherence which is necessary for the ear to do its work, for one to listen actively. So for very different reasons, those who produce the music are also less than satisfied with current practice.

As I write I have just been listening to the afternoon repeat of the Brahms 2nd piano concerto from the Proms. A review I read commented that Peter Serkin was at times all but inaudible in the hall. There was of course not a hint of this in the Radio 3 balance. This is an 'improvement' for the listener at home, but that old Quad slogan of "the closest approach to the original sound" has been well and truly abandoned - for good and for ill. To my mind there is a lot more of the latter than most people think, especially if we want audience members to be able to use their ears (and the brains that are connected to them).
Archive recordings of BBC Proms broadcasts used in preparation of this post:
* Elgar Symphony No. 1: Boult/BBCSO July 1976
* Brahms Symphony No. 3: Boult/BBCSO August 1977
* Janáček The Ballad of Blaník & Martinů Double Concerto: Mackerras/BBCSO July 1979
* Janáček Taras Bulba: Rozhdestvensky/BBCSO August 1981

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, August 13, 2016

Political activism is going nowhere


Why are so many otherwise rational people spending so much time ranting about Donald Trump and other politicians on social media? Yes, of course Trump is a dangerous basket case. But ranting about him to your few hundred online friends and followers who already share your opinion is the same as peeing down your trouser leg when wearing a dark suit - it gives you a nice warm feeling but nobody notices. Beware of the trap that lured the British twittering classes into believing that if they made enough noise on social media about the benefits of remaining in the EU, the referendum result was a foregone conclusion. Instead of ranting about Trump, people should read Jarett Kobek's novel i hate the internet, and this passage in particular:
One of the curious aspects of the Twenty-First Century was the great delusion amongst many people, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technological platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible.
People from across all the political spectrum loved Twitter. Instant activism with an instant response. There was the sensation that things were happening that people were listening.In fact, all of the people who exercised freedom of speech and freedom of expression on Twitter were doing nothing more and nothing less than creating content they did not own for a corporation in which they had no stake...
The only purpose of tweeting was the creation of new opportunities for advertisements. The only function of exercising freedom of speech and freedom of expression on Twitter was to make money for the people who had founded and invested in twitter.
So that was radical activism in 2013. Hosted by a service owned by white dudes which displayed advertisements for Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
No review sample used in this post. Renault 4 going nowhere was photographed by me in Essaouira, Morocco. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Inevitably but ironically also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, August 12, 2016

And know the place for the first time


East Anglian skyscapes have inspired composers including E.J. Moeran, William Alwyn, Elizabeth Maconchy, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst* and, of course, Benjamin Britten. That sunset was photographed by me recently while staying at Ling's Meadow eco campsite on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk. As we move deeper into Kali Yuga, international travel becomes less and less appealing. In response to this I have been experimenting with mini-retreats in my local region. As T.S. Eliot explains in Little Gidding (No. 4 of 'Four Quartets'):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
* The Holst connection with East Anglia is less celebrated than that of other composers. Holst lived intermittently at Thaxted in Essex between 1914 and 1917, during which time the works he wrote included the Planets and The Hymn of Jesus, and the tune adapted for I Vow to Thee, My Country was named 'Thaxted' by the composer in recognition. It is also worth noting that Michael Tippett spent most of his childhood (1905-19) in Wetherden, Suffolk. There is no obvious connection between Tippett's music and the region. However, Peter Hall's celebrated 1974 film Akenfield, which used Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, is set in a fictional village whose name is conflated from two Suffolk villages located very close to where I took the photos. No comps 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, August 11, 2016

There is more than one way to boost social media rankings


Norman Lebrecht rants at certain classical musicians for buying their social media rankings from Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. He is quite right to point out the stupidity of paying social media mills in faraway countries. Because you can boost your ranking much more cheaply using home-grown click bait - see example above.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Classical music's new audience does not want mono sound


A highlight of my recent listening was BBC Radio 3's broadcast of the superlative Haitink/LSO Mahler 3 Prom seen above. The BBC's Proms relays maintain a commendably high sound quality, but it is still worth auditioning them with a constructively critical ear. Listening to a Prom on a monitor quality audio system underlines the presence and impact of the sound. But that impact comes at a price: individual instruments and soloists are spotlit - e.g. the mezzo in Mahler's Sehr langsam Misterioso - and although the soundstage is wide the location of sections within the orchestra is ambiguous. These may be esoteric points, but they do lead down a path that raises important questions about how classical music can reach new audiences.

A post here in 2012 touched on the up close and personal signature sound of Proms broadcasts, while a post a year later reflected on how placing multiple microphones close to the musicians has, of necessity, become standard recording practice. Specific circumstances at the Proms including different platform layout each evening, the problem of intrusive audience and ambient noise, TV coverage requiring minimal visibility of microphones - can you spot the mics in the photo above? - and the famously poor acoustic of the Albert Hall, all dictate the use of multiple and close microphone placement. But multiple microphones picking up the same sound in different locations cause phase errors, because they are at different distances from the sound source [1]. This means when the two channels are combined in mono the sound of the instrument(s) is partially cancelled out by the phase discrepancy, in just the same way as reversing the phase of one speaker in a stereo system degrades the sound significantly [2]. Which is why many of the great stereo recordings of the past such as Antal Dorati's iconic 1959 Firebird Suite on the Mercury label used very few microphones.

When I worked on radio programmes at the BBC, which is many years ago indeed, we used to switch between stereo and mono monitoring because may people back then listened in mono - remember transistor radios? If your FM tuner/receiver has a mono/stereo switch and you live in the UK, there is a simple way to demonstrate the destructive power of phase errors. In an ideal mix the sound will remain virtually unchanged when folded down from stereo to mono, except of course for the change to a single sound source. But switch to mono on a BBC Proms broadcast and the sound degrades dramatically, particularly the upper strings.

Commercial reality dictates that most classical recording is now done on the fly at concerts. But studio recording is still the norm in the rock world where sound engineers are more wised up to the importance of listening in mono. For this reason a website devoted to rock studio best practice recommends:

"When soundwaves are (partially or totally) out of phase with each other, some frequencies can disappear. A word of caution here is that stereo sounds that have a lot of phase problems between the left and the right channel can sound really wide when played back in stereo, but lose some frequency content when combined to mono. A good practice is to occasionally listen to your mix in mono, using either a mono button on your mixer/audio interface or a plugin with a mono button on your master bus in your DAW [digital audio workstation]".
Rock audiences are conditioned to mono sound because DJs play their sets in mono, as clubs do not have stereo 'sweet spots'. Because of this most club sound systems are wired in mono; in response to this leading rapper Kendrick Lamar mixed most of his award winning album To Pimp A Butterfly in mono, and he estimates that 80% of his mixing is done in mono. Mono is also staging a return in personal listening as single Bluetooth speakers used in portable systems provide a mono source, and the soundbars that are popular in home cinema systems are point sound sources despite claims to the contrary. But in classical music Nada Brahma - sound is god - and the all-important new audience will not be won over by mono sound.

I can already hear the shouts of "This has nothing to do with classical music, because nobody listens in mono". Which is wrong: because at a Promenade concert, the only people who hear true two dimensional sound are those in the arena or the expensive front stalls seats. The rest of the audience is to all intents and purposes listening in mono because they are so far from the orchestra (The optimum ratio of distance from the sound source to width of stereo source is approximately 1.3 to 1. For a seat to the rear of the Albert Hall the ratio is 6.5 to 1). The Albert Hall provides a topical example, but the same applies in most large concert halls - a reader wrote in a comment of how at a Festival Hall concert "the Schumann symphony... could be heard playing in the distance like a phantom radio programme on the BBC World Service long wave" [3].

BBC Proms broadcasts and recent commercial recordings may have sonic impact and immediacy. But that sound is artificially contrived; which is not in itself as a bad thing as all recordings are artificial artifacts. However, the divergence between up close and personal broadcast/recorded sound and the experience of a neophyte in a cheap concert seat hearing an orchestra playing in the distance like a phantom radio programme may explain why the current generation of headphone listeners fails to engage with live classical music. An example of the trend towards up close and personal sound is the current Classic FM experimental binaural stream of the Philharmonia Orchestra playing the Die Fledermaus Overture - see graphic below. This was recorded using the standard binaural set-up of a dummy head with microphones in each ear cavity. (As only two microphones can be used in binaural recording and as a solid dummy head separates the microphones, phase errors are minimised). For the demonstration recording the dummy head was placed in the middle of the orchestra; this allows the listener to move from a cheap seat at the back of the hall with its mono sound, to sit in the middle of the orchestra and experience the power of the music coming from every direction [4]. The binaural Die Fledermaus can be sampled via this link - headphones are, of course, required.

Purists may shudder at hearing classical music so up close and personal, but, whether we like it or not, this is what new audiences conditioned to headphone listening want. Everything in the concert hall from dress conventions to silence between movements has been questioned. But there has been very little constructive debate about the sound itself. Because any debate usually descends into a destructive argument about introducing sound shaping and other new technologies into the concert hall. Questions and answers are being confused here. First we must debate whether concert hall sound is the reason why live classical music is failing to engage new and young audiences. Only when we have debated that question and arrived at the conclusion that the sound is a barrier to audience engagement should we start debating possible solutions.



[1] Transparent acoustic screens are often deployed between orchestra sections at the Proms to reduce sound leakage.
[2] Another potential source of phase errors is the trend towards multi-channel formats. In view of the BBC's claim of financial penury it is surprising that covert experiments with broadcasting the Proms in 4.0 surround sound continue. An experiment involving folding the 4.0 stream down to mono would be illuminating.
[3] Not all concert halls suffer from the problem of poor sound in the cheaper seats; examples of where the problem does not occur include Symphony Hall Birmingham and Snape Maltings. The sound quality in the more distant seats is determined by complex acoustical factors including ratio of depth to width of the hall and overall size. To illustrate the role of size, the Albert hall has a seating capacity of 5000, whereas the acoustically famed Musikverein, Vienna and Concertgebouw, Amsterdam seat 1744 and 1974 respectively.
[4] In the past the BBC have experimented with binaural broadcasts of the Proms and samples of the 2016 concerts are available online as binaural streams. In 1978 a play without dialogue by Andrew Sachs titled The Revenge was also broadcast in binaural sound by the BBC. This was an important experiment that is worth auditioning; an audio file is available which provides an introduction to binaural sound - listen here.

Photo of Prom via @bbcproms. 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.