Friday, November 11, 2016

There be dragons but no middle ground


It  was very clear to me from the beginning of the project that the object here was not one of finding the common ground shared by two or more traditions and working from that as a starting point. Here the common ground was minimal if indeed it did exist.
That is Ross Daly writing in the sleeve essay for his CD White Dragon*. This album was recorded live at Ross' 2003 Houdetsi Festival on Crete and is a collaboration with the Huun Huur Tu throat singing (khöömei) ensemble from the southern Siberian republic of Tuva, plus guest musicians including the Franco-Iranian percussion group Trio Chemirani. Tuva is known as Russia's Tibet and the republic's religion is a mix of animistic shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. So it is not surprising the album's opening track Mörgül on which Huun Huur Tu deliver an a cappella Buddhist prayer took me back to the early morning puja in the Tibetan Buddhist Thiksay monastery close to the Indian border with Tibet**.

Ross Daly is a musician savant in the mold of Jordi Savall and the late Jonathan Harvey, and his willingness to venture where there is no common ground deserves closer consideration. In his essay he explains that "Perhaps the greatest difficulty for a Westerner working with Tuvan music is to go beyond the "strangeness" of it on a technical level and to simply perceive it as music". In world music - a categorisation which Ross derides but I will use nevertheless - if common ground does not exist it is forcibly created as a safe space that the mass market audience can explore without leaving their comfort zones. The result is invariably a bland fusion that neither offends nor inspires. This enforced migration of unique music traditions to the lowest common ground is not confined to world music. It is the driving force behind the dumbing down of Western classical music. And, not coincidentally, this artificial middle ground provides lush grazing for the intermediary parasites who are the music industry's equivalent of the Davos class.

There is much that Western classical can learn from Ross Daly. His observation on the challenge of appreciating Tuvan music can be reworded to read 'Perhaps the greatest difficulty for a new listener to contemporary Western classical music is to go beyond the strangeness of it on a technical level and to simply perceive it as music'. Or in other words stop trying to create a safe middle ground, and instead reintroduce audiences to the lost art of listening.

* The complete album White Dragon can be downloaded legally for free from Ross Daly's website. There is also a seven minute video of the concert on YouTube.
** Auspicious synchronicity strikes again at this point. My first draft of this post with its mention of Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh - which I visited two years ago - was drafted a few weeks back. To find out more about Tuva I ordered Tuva or Bust: Richard Feynman's Last Journey by Ralph Leighton, one of the few books about the republic. Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) was a scientist, teacher, raconteur, and musician.I was astounded to find the photo and caption below in the book:



Richard Feynman is portrayed here by Pasadena artist Sylvia Posner in the garb of a Ladakhi monk. (The costume, based on photographs in the National Geographic, was made by his wife Gweneth for a costume party. Had the geographical restrictions allowed it, he would have dressed as a lama from Tannu Tuva, the small, isolated land he tried to reach during his last dozen years here on earth.) In the background is the landscape of Los Alamos, where Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. The opened padlock has both literal and symbolic significance. In his right hand is a "Feynman diagram," which Feynman originally invented as a kind of shorthand to help him remember where he was in a complex calculation. Such diagrams have helped physicists around the world unlock the mysteries of Nature. (The diagram here shows one possible way that two electrons can go through space and time: one electron emits a photon represented by the wavy line - and the other electron absorbs it.)
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